Thursday, December 08, 2005

Beautiful...Tangled Roots - Ch. 8

Chapter 8
Edric was summoned out to the slave quarters of one of his oldest slaves early one mid-December morning. Old Jasper was ailing pretty badly today and couldn’t lead the younger workers out to the field as he usually did. As a result, someone else had to take over the business of making sure the group stayed on task and motivated with song, lest York the overseer found occasion to take a whip to them.

It was a cloudy day, so Dr Wainwright knew that the weather was causing the old man’s bones to ache. Having concocted a very strong smelling ointment for such an ailment, Edric prepared to relieve some of his faithful slave’s pain. He knew that Jasper wasn’t one of the lazy ones. If this man wasn’t at work, it was because he was genuinely ailing.

Coming into the humble log cabin that was built on a dirt lane and had been daubed with mud like the other eleven slave quarters on the property, Dr. Wainwright immediately noticed that Jasper already had someone tending to him. And it was not Jasper’s wife. No, Hester was standing watch above him while another female slave was doing the most amazing thing to her husband. That other female slave was Eve.

Eve had the old man lying face down on a blanket in the middle of the swept cabin floor where she kneeled beside him and massaged his stiff shoulders, elbows, knees, and everywhere else the old man complained of hurting. The deep tissue massage, with just a touch of olive oil for a smoother rub, was really working because Jasper was already nodding off to a blissful sleep.

“It seems that my services are no longer needed,” Edric said quietly as he made himself known to Jasper’s interim nurse who was so wrapped up in her ministrations that she hadn’t heard him enter the dwelling.

Eve paused from her task and turned around to look at the handsome doctor who was dressed in all black today. The gold pocket watch and dangling chain really set the outfit off. She couldn’t help but think that Dr. Wainwright had to be the most dudish man she’d ever seen. And against her will she began to wonder how he’d look without those fine clothes on.

Swallowing over the nervous lump in her throat, Eve said, “Sorry, sir. I just couldn’t bear seeing old Jasper in such a bad way. I had ta try ta do somethin’ ta ease his pain ‘til ya came.” Eve had been assigned to the elderly couple’s cabin since she first arrived on this plantation. Over the months of her stay, they’d become like second parents to her.

“Well, what you did seems to have worked. Where did you learn to do that?” Edric put his black medical bag down in the center of the rickety table near the hearth and came closer to where Jasper and Eve were.

“My Mammy taught me. She said, ‘hands kin heal if dey put in da right place and wit da right force behind it’,” Eve replied, seeing the kindness in Dr. Wainwright’s eyes as he gazed upon Jasper’s sleeping frame. She’d never met a more compassionate white person in all of her days. Knowing that made Eve want him anew. Yet her face remained neutral, not letting on to any of her true feelings.

“It looks like your mother was right. Perhaps you can show me how to do that sometimes. I am always looking for new ways to make my patients feel better,” Edric said, now giving Eve a piercing look with blue-green eyes that could not easily hide his personal interest in her.

Day by day and night by night, Edric constantly wrestled with his attraction to this slave woman. Now he was growing weary. Not only was Edric tired of fighting his unwelcome attraction to Eve, he was also tired of being neglected by the white woman he was married to. In short, the good doctor was just tired of a lot of things. Although Edric had been constantly neglected by his busy, Indian-fighting father, he’d never been neglected by a woman before. Thus, Abigail’s behavior was doing wicked things to his very sense of self-worth.

Recognizing the obvious desire in Edric’s eyes, Eve rose to her feet as nervous heat shot through her body. “Miss Abigail…is…likely wondering where I done gone off ta. I see ya at da big house, sir,” she stammered out as she quickly fled the scene.

Edric stared after Eve, noting how abruptly she’d left. If he were most masters or most undisciplined men, he would have taken her by now. Especially when he realized how attracted he was to her and especially after some of the dreams he’d had about her lately. But Edric prided himself on being a self-controlled man and thus quite capable of overcoming his attraction to any woman, particularly a slave woman. He was also a man that liked willing vessels in his bed and if he ever was to sleep with Eve, it would have to be completely consensual.

Then after leaving oral instructions with Hester about how and when to use the ointment on Jasper since neither of the slaves could read, Dr. Wainwright gave the elderly slave and his wife – who worked at the plantation nursery - the rest of the day off. Then Edric made his way back to the main house with thoughts of Eve still accompanying him.

******

Later that evening, Edric was in the library making notes in his journals when he heard two familiar slave voices outside in the garden near the window again. The window was much higher than either woman at full height and they could not see inside which was fortunate for the listening man inside the building.

Today Charlotte and Eve were singing a soulful tune to help the work go faster as they picked fresh greens for the upcoming Sunday dinner. They had to go as swiftly as possible in order to avoid the inevitable downpour that the brooding clouds above threatened to disperse by nightfall. Both women had their long gray dresses reefed up with a cord drawn tightly around the body, a little above the hip area, so that their work could go reasonably unencumbered.

As on the last occasion, Edric immediately gave the women his full listening attention. Right away he realized that one of his questions was answered about Eve. She could sing very well and the richness of her soprano voice was soothing to him. However, the dialogue that would come next would not be soothing to him at all.

“Jonah seems mighty fixed on asking Dr. Wainwright fo yo hand in marriage. Dat boy is plum crazy over ya. Can’t stop gabbing ‘bout how pretty ya is,” Charlotte said after their song ended as her hands moved diligently over the foliage surrounding her.

Inside the library, Edric inhaled sharply as an unexpected surge of jealousy saturated his whole being at the thought of another man, any man making love to Eve. He’d felt the same way when his brother asked to bed Eve back in October. Edric continued to hold his breath as he waited to hear what the women would say next.

Back outside in the garden, Eve’s face wrinkled into a frown as she paused in her work. “I pray Jonah gets over dis mind he has ta wed me. Ya know I always say da truth, so hear me when I say dat I ain’t looking fo no man ever. Wanna stay ta myself ‘til I die.”

“But why, Eve? Don’t ya want a family?” Charlotte exclaimed, obviously shocked by her young friend’s statements. Her bronze forehead wrinkled into a frown. She and Eve were only five years apart in age, but Charlotte was already married and birthing babies almost every other year. She couldn’t imagine any woman not wanting to do the same.

“No. Not wit things da way dey is in da world. I got took from my Mammy and Pappy at ten. Nearly broke my Mammy’s heart when it happened. Saw da pain in her eyes as dey took me away. Never forget dat as long as I live. It made my Pappy so mad, he hit da overseer. Knock da man out cold.” Eve was sure that her father suffered a mighty beating for that, yet she was so proud of him for standing up for her. She could only hope that her former owners allowed her mother to use her medical know-how to speed her father’s recovery.

Charlotte nodded in quiet understanding. She’d been taken from her parents at a young age as well. Her only comfort was in the fact that she eventually got sold to Dr. Wainwright and that she’d been treated right ever since. She’d even been allowed to marry who she wanted, instead of being bred like some farm animal.

“Don’t want dat ta happen wit my chirren, so I’m figuring if I got no man, I got no kids ta take,” Eve concluded as she returned to her work.

“But Dr. Wainwright is a good massa, Eve. As long as I been here he ain’t split no slave family up,” Charlotte contended, showing her fondness for their master through those words.

Back in the library, Edric let out his breath in slow waves of relief at the women’s words. It brought him great pleasure to know that Eve was not fond of marrying any man, but it grieved him greatly to know that she’d suffered separation from her parents at such an early age. Then the reality that this sort of thing happened to slave families all the time also bore heavily upon him. So heavily that it prompted him to make a promise to himself.

Never again will I buy another slave under the age of seventeen, Edric vowed. If he had his choice he would never buy any more slaves, ever. Yet as a planter, Dr. Wainwright knew that he needed them for their labor. And according to his mother, the slaves he owned needed him, as well. After all, where else would they find such good treatment from a white master? Around here, slaves deemed being bought by Dr. Wainwright as one step closer to freedom.

Unfortunately for Edric, the next words that came out of Eve’s mouth would have him holding his breath again. Her words also had him rethinking the way he handled the whole slavery situation from now on.

“Oh, yeah? If he be such a good massa, den why don’t he let da field slaves take longer breaks ta at least catch dey breaths? Dem po folks gone die early wit all dat work and no rest. And why don’t he set a fair amount fo each one ta get done everyday so dey kin go on home and tend ta dey own gardens?” Eve countered, stating some valid points in her argument.

Charlotte looked aghast and her eyes darted this way and that to make sure they hadn’t been heard. “Stop dat kind of talk, Eve. Dr. Wainwright is a good man. He treat all his slaves good. Even make sho all the chirren is properly fed and clothed. And da grown slaves get shoes twice a year ‘stead of just one like most slaves.”

Eve chuckled at the shocked expression on her friend’s face. “Sho ‘nuff, but I reckon he get a lot more work out of his slaves if he did what I just said. My Mammy always said ‘ya kin catch mo flies wit honey, not wit a stick’.”

I declare that must be the smartest slave alive, Edric mused back inside the library. As for the things Eve suggested, he was going to implement them right away. Not only because she suggested them, but also because they made sense to do so. Giving his field workers longer breaks and fair quotas to fill everyday would undoubtedly increase productivity. It would probably also cut down on the laziness, faked illness, and plows that slaves often broke in order to get out of work.

© 2005 Suprina Frazier

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