Virginia, Confederate States of America
A Slave’s Revolt
Anna strode into the kitchen and approached the man at the door. She pointed to the packages sitting at his feet. “You may store those in the back pantry.” One of the kitchen slaves made a move to escort the man. “No, no. I will show him. We wouldn’t want the master’s dinner to be late.”
The slave looked at Anna appreciatively and with evident relief. The last late dinner resulted in every slave in the kitchen receiving five lashes, which for the master was hardly punishment at all. The only thing that spared them from more was the master’s vanity, as there were guests expected for supper that evening and even the master could appreciate that a severe beating would result in an inferior meal.
“Right this way.” Anna gestured for the man to follow her as she led the way out of the kitchen and down the hall to the walk-in pantry. She felt his presence behind her and imagined the rough texture of the blond stubble on his cheek scraping her hand as she touched his face. Her pulse quickened with every step she took. What was Benjamin doing here? The number of men visiting the plantation had certainly increased since the outbreak of war, but not as visitors to the kitchen. His presence would cause talk. Not to mention, she had just seen him two weeks earlier, and for everyone’s safety, two spies were not to be seen alone together more than once a month. That was not a hardship with the other members of her spy ring. Her relationships with them were strictly business, but Benjamin had always been more than business. Anna counted down the days until his next arrival. Benjamin had awakened a part of her that had been shut down since the first days of her marriage, a part of her that she had repressed in order to survive.
Anna’s betrothal to Andrew Bell, almost twenty years ago, had been arranged by her father. Their union appeared in newspapers up and down the coast; or more precisely, the merger between the great Bell Tobacco Company in Virginia and the mighty Waldoff Shipping in New York littered the pages. Their nuptials were merely a footnote. Their vast age difference—she was barely sixteen and her bridegroom almost forty—had been left out completely. Anna was the bow that tied the whole deal together, and that was all anyone cared about. Anna’s mother had died during childbirth, so without her to intervene, Anna had no choice.
She cried the entire journey south and planned to continue through the ceremony, but her father threatened her with a beating if she embarrassed him in front of his colleagues. So Anna pulled herself together and played her part: the demure daughter through the ceremony and the obedient wife through the festivities that followed. Only after the guests had left and they were alone, did she allow her façade to crack. She knew what inevitably had to come, what has to come at the end of every wedding day before you are truly man and wife, and she was horrified. Anna knew nothing of this man. The thought of being at his mercy made her want to run away and never look back.
Without a word, her new husband grasped her firmly by the arm and led her to her bedroom, then presented her with her wedding gift: Mary, Anna’s new personal slave. It sickened Anna that her husband thought a person was an appropriate gift, and it sickened her even more that she was powerless to do anything but accept. So accept she did, and thanked him for his generosity. He acknowledged her thanks with a grunt and left the room.
She did not know what to do. Mary suggested that she prepare herself for bed, so Anna allowed her new slave to help her into her nightgown, then sat on the edge of the bed, and waited. She knew only in vague generalities what was going to happen, but she knew to expect pain because her nurse-maid had cautioned her not to cry out lest she take away from her husband’s enjoyment. That was where her knowledge ended. She had to sit and wait in ignorance. She waited for what seemed an eternity, her nerves fraying with every chime of the clock.
He never came.
Finally, on the verge of collapse, she called out quietly for Mary. It fell to Mary to inform her that her new husband had left for the night. Anna expected to feel relief at this news, but her reaction was utterly different. Here she was, a wife on her wedding night, and her husband did not want to come to her. The fleeting hope that a happy marriage might be possible vanished. She would have to endure the embarrassment and rejection of being snubbed. He did not want her, not even in the carnal sense. This truly was a business merger for him and she was the unfortunate aftereffect.
The tears flowed hard and hot down her cheeks. She cried in anger that her father cared so little for her that he was willing to throw her aside for a better price on tobacco. She cried in humiliation that everyone would know her as nothing more than a living representation of a profitable merger. And she cried for herself, for the rejection and hurt that cut so deeply she could hardly breathe. He did not want her. No one wanted her. She would never feel a gentle hand on her cheek or see adoration shining through moist eyes when all words had been lost. She would never feel love because she was nothing more than a means to an end, a possession.
Mary enveloped her in her arms and rocked her until she fell asleep. In the morning when she awoke, Mary was still there and held her again when the tears resumed. That evening, Andrew finally came. He was drunk and smelled as if he hadn’t stopped drinking since the day before. He climbed on top of her without even bothering to dismiss Mary or take off his boots. He fumbled for a moment trying to raise the hem of her nightgown, before frustration won out and he grabbed the neckline, tearing the gown open right down the middle. This sudden violence caught Anna off guard and before she realized what she was doing, she struck out at him, trying to defend herself. Her first blow landed square across his face replacing his bleary-eyed, drunken look with an unsettling smile.
Grabbing her wrists, he pinned them above her head while using his knee to forcibly separate her legs. Anna was still struggling when he thrust inside of her with all his might. His moan of obvious pleasure was drowned out by Anna’s screams of pain. She felt as though her insides were ripping apart with every violent exertion he made. She tried to focus on something, anything else. The numbness spreading through her hands from her wrists being held so tightly, the incongruity of his cold metal belt buckle pressed into her thigh, the averted face of Mary, helpless to do anything but wait. Anna eventually went numb, either from the repeated concussions or simply her brain recognizing the need to be somewhere else. Once finished, he collapsed on her briefly, then stood, using her ruined gown to wipe the blood and seed from his now flaccid cock. Sloppily, he pulled his pants back up and left the room, calling for, and receiving, more whiskey. Evidently his comrades were waiting outside the door. Mary enfolded Anna in her arms once more, but Anna was dry eyed. There were no tears left.
Anna learned to accept the solitude of life on the plantation. She actually preferred the solitude to the company of her husband or his friends. The South was a whole different world from New York, a world she did not understand and had no inclination to try to understand. Eventually, she became pregnant and, much to her dismay, gave birth to a girl. The last thing Anna wanted was to bring a girl into this world of coquettish Southern belles, to flirt and flounce and stand prettily on a pedestal. What she despised even more was the way her husband doted on their daughter. Kady could do no wrong and wanted for nothing, no matter how ridiculous the demand. The only benefit for Anna was that her husband now left her almost entirely alone. He had their daughter to dote upon and plenty of slaves to take care of his baser needs. Anna was called upon for social occasions and that was the sum total of their acquaintance. Without Mary, Anna would not have had anyone to talk to or truly confide in, but even that relationship was tainted. No matter how close they became, the fact that Anna owned Mary would always come between them. This was Anna’s life for fifteen years. Then she met Benjamin Grant.
As one Southern state after another seceded from the nation and a civil war was imminent, her husband was named a general for the Confederate Army – not that he was ever expected to don a uniform and fight. A man who owned as many slaves as he did was exempt. He hadn’t even been assigned a regiment or any men. He was wealthy, had many connections, and the Confederate leadership was not composed of stupid men. A trumped-up title and the pretense of listening to Andrew’s suggestions earned them much needed funding. Overnight, Anna became a general’s wife, which meant there were many dinners to plan and attend. As such, the whole house needed redecorating, which meant frequent journeys to Richmond.
It was on one of her trips, this time to pick out new draperies, that she met Benjamin, the shopkeeper. He was charismatic, gentle, and sensed immediately the disquiet that Anna tried so desperately to hide. It wasn’t long before Anna insisted she travel to Richmond more and more often on the pretense of needing to personally oversee all aspects of the renovations. Andrew paid little notice; as the months passed, Benjamin paid more and more. He helped protract her task of choosing first the materials then the hardware for her new draperies. Never in the history of remodeling had it taken so long to get the draperies right. Then they moved on to reupholstering the furniture.
When at long last Benjamin quietly locked the door to the shop and pulled Anna into the back, her face flushed and her heart raced, whether from fear or excitement she did not know. Before she could decide, Benjamin kissed her. It was like no feeling she had ever had, like no feeling she knew was even possible. A warmth spread throughout her body that she felt down to her toes. He kissed her again and again, until the warmth centralized itself into her lower abdomen and she veritably ached for him. His hands held her firmly, one on her lower back, and the other stroking rhythmically on the side of her bodice, nearly driving her to distraction. She wanted so badly to be free of her many layers, to feel his flesh on hers, to ease her aching as only this man could, right here and right now.
Then he stopped. As he pulled away from her, she saw that he was breathing as heavily as she. He looked down, slightly shaking his head, then looked up to her with the kindest, most loving eyes and gently placed his hand against her cheek. She felt so small next to him, his hand could have easily engulfed her entire face. He ever so carefully stroked her cheek with his thumb until she had to close her eyes to keep the tears at bay.
This was everything she had ever wanted, everything she had convinced herself only existed in her imagination, yet here he was, living and breathing right in front of her. He wanted her. He wanted her so badly he was willing to risk everything to have her. She would match his risk, for she wanted him as well and was willing to give everything she had if it meant being with him.
Benjamin suggested that he bring samples to the plantation, but Anna knew her husband would eventually hear of such an arrangement and not approve. Unless, of course, it was his idea to begin with. So Anna made a point of lamenting the terribly long journey to Richmond one evening at supper. Andrew was far from interested until Anna confessed her fear that the slaves were getting lazy in her absence. This got his attention, and before the dessert was served, he had left the table to prepare a letter demanding that this merchant accommodate his wife at the plantation. Upon receiving the message, Benjamin scheduled his first visit to coincide with one of Andrew’s frequent absences. Even so, Benjamin and Anna took every precaution to be discreet, though Anna knew the slaves would never dare tell their master for fear he would literally shoot the messenger.
The first time they made love, Anna cried. Benjamin moved slowly and tenderly. He kissed her deeply and whispered that he loved her over and over until shudders ran up and down her body and tears overflowed her eyes in an unimaginable bliss. That day, Anna learned that sex could be pleasurable instead of painful. Afterward, he held her for as long as he dared before dressing and taking his leave. Anna stayed in bed for the rest of the day, claiming fatigue from the decorating. In truth, she was loath to leave the bed and his scent. She closed her eyes and relived every moment, afraid if she continued with her life as normal, the beauty would fade, and it would be as if it had never happened.
To keep up appearances, Anna still journeyed into the city on occasion. On one of these occasions, Anna happened upon Benjamin secreted away in the back of his shop with another woman. Anna had assumed that she was the only woman he brought to the back of his shop for privacy. Flames of jealousy engulfed her. Benjamin at least had the decency to look chagrined when he saw her standing there.
“Anna,” he exclaimed. She turned to leave. “Anna, wait. It’s not what you think.”
She whirled back to face him. “Not what I think? How could it be anything else? The look of guilt on both of your faces tells me exactly what it is you were doing sequestered back here in your shop!”
“Anna, it’s not that. I swear! I work for her.”
“You work for her? Doing what? Seducing the wives of wealthy men – to what? Get them to spend more money? Buy more draperies?”
“No, she has nothing to do with the shop.”
“Benjamin is part of my spy ring.” The other woman had finally spoken. Anna was speechless for a moment, then let out a laugh verging on hysteria.
“Spy ring? So you expect me to believe that you are a spy? That you are in a spy meeting in the back room of your shop, and you blurt it out to the first person who walks in on you? How stupid and gullible and naïve do you think I am? You can have your little trollop, Benjamin, and all of the other trollops that I am sure you have waiting patiently for their turn. Let them believe your lies.”
Fighting back tears, Anna stormed toward the front door, but Benjamin forcibly grabbed her and dragged her back into the rear of the shop. Anna fought against him furiously. One abusive man in her life was enough, she would not quietly allow another man to batter her. Despite her blows, Benjamin did nothing but try to restrain and calm her. It wasn’t until she realized that his soft Southern twang had disappeared that she quieted and looked at him warily. Once he was sure she wouldn’t bolt for the door again, he released her and stepped back.
“What happened to your voice?” Anna asked.
Benjamin visibly relaxed and let his New England accent come out stronger than normal to emphasize his point. “This is not my shop and I am not from the South. I am a lieutenant with the Second Maine Infantry. When my uncle fell ill, he wrote to his sister, my mother, to ask for help running his shop. As I was already involved somewhat with intelligence work, I went to my superiors to tell them of the opportunity to place a spy in Richmond. Before my mother even had time to write a letter back to my uncle, I was on a train heading south. When I arrived, I discovered that everyone assumed I was from the South, so I let them believe their assumption and adopted my Southern drawl. It was easy after listening to my mother’s for my entire life.”
Benjamin finished his speech by switching back to his Southern accent, then sheepishly grinned at Anna, hoping his cleverness was enough to soften her demeanor. It wasn’t. Anna crossed her arms and kept her distance. Before he could continue, the woman stepped in.
“That is when I approached him.”
Anna took a moment to actually look at the woman and was surprised to realize that she knew her. Not personally, but she knew of her and had seen her before. Andrew was a longtime customer of John Van Lew’s hardware business, and unless Anna was mistaken, she was now standing in front of John’s daughter.
“You are Elizabeth V –”
Elizabeth cut Anna off before she could finish. “Call me Baker’s Daughter. And Benjamin is Shopkeeper. We are both spies.”
Anna was completely perplexed, her anger now gone. “Why are you telling me this? You don’t seem like very good spies if you go around telling everyone.”
Elizabeth laughed. “That is true, which is why I don’t tell everyone. I am only telling you because I have been trying to convince this stubborn man to recruit you.”
“No!” Benjamin interjected. “It is too dangerous.” He glared at Elizabeth as he moved in between the two women, then turned to Anna. “Anna, it is too dangerous. If your husband found out, he would kill you.”
“Then we make sure her husband doesn’t find out, just like we make sure that nobody finds out about any of the rest of us. We are all in danger. That does not make her special.”
Benjamin whirled on Elizabeth. “She is special to me, and I will not see her put in harm’s way!”
“Don’t you think that is her decision to make?”
Elizabeth and Benjamin picked up their argument as if Anna was not in the room. Anna’s head spun. Everything she knew was being turned upside down. The man she loved was a Northerner, and he was working for the Union. She was both baffled and convinced that she had known this all along. She would always be a Yankee, so of course she would only be able to give her heart away to one. Somehow, she had gone from bitterly betrayed to even more deeply in love than ever before in a matter of minutes. Perhaps she was going insane, but there in front of her, large as life, were Benjamin and this woman arguing about whether Anna should be a spy.
The absurdity of it all made Anna laugh. The thought thrilled her. Carrying on an affair behind her husband’s back was one thing; damaging his precious South using information she provided was certainly another. If he ever found out, it would enrage him and he would likely kill her as Benjamin feared. Thus, her only regret was that she would not be able to see Andrew’s face when he discovered her betrayal. She could live with that regret.
“Do I get my own special name?” Unlike her earlier laugh that had not attracted either of Elizabeth’s or Benjamin’s attention, her speaking drew them both up short.
“What?” Benjamin snapped at Anna, still caught up in the heat of the argument, then blushed in contrition. Anna paid him no mind.
“If I agree to become a spy, do I get my own name like Baker’s Daughter or Shopkeeper?”
Elizabeth jumped to respond. “Of course! I have already given that some thought. You would be Northern Rose.”
“I like it.” Anna smiled and glanced at Benjamin without allowing herself to linger on his hurt expression and thus dissuade her from accepting. “What do I do?”
Elizabeth’s face beamed with success. Benjamin’s was a picture of defeat. “Anna, please don’t. My love, I cannot bear to stand by while you put yourself in danger.”
Anna took a step toward Benjamin and caressed his cheek before leaning in to kiss him ever so softly. He half-heartedly kissed her back, instead closing his eyes and bending his head forward so that their foreheads were touching.
Anna cupped his face in both of her hands. “My darling, the war is raging through the countryside. I am in danger every day that I spend in Virginia. At least this way I can be of some use.” Benjamin started to reply but Anna cut him off. “No. You do not get to make this decision for me. If you are allowed to put yourself at risk, then so am I.”
She kissed him once more before turning to Elizabeth. “What kind of information do you want?”
Elizabeth looked to Benjamin, who shrugged and nodded his head, before she replied to Anna, “Anything you can get your hands on.”
Anna smiled and proceeded to tell them everything that her husband was currently involved in and any details she had heard. Benjamin had already known of some of the things, but most were new. Elizabeth was thrilled and committed everything that Anna said to memory. As their conversation had already kept the shop closed long enough to arouse suspicion, Elizabeth suggested that they all part ways and told Anna to expect a present of new shoes to arrive within the week. Benjamin would explain how they worked when he next visited.
So Anna entered into a dance of duplicity. The element of danger that her rendezvous with Benjamin held took on a new edge. It wasn’t until a member of their ring was caught and hung for treason that the monthly rule was instituted. The new rule stated that spies could only be seen in each other’s company – not counting large social gatherings – once per month so that it would be hard for an outsider to recognize any on-going affiliation. Because of this, Anna and Benjamin saw each other less, and Anna met more and more spies. She even recruited some of her own. Her own spy ring soon surpassed Benjamin’s because she had the advantage of attending and hosting society functions where she couldn’t interact with multiple spies, several times within the same month, with no one the wiser.
Anna discovered a heretofore unknown pleasure in these societal obligations. Unfortunately, her husband also noticed her new enthusiasm and, assuming she was finally embracing the Southern way of life, had begun to pay more attention to her. She suffered these attentions as best she could and was subsequently pleased to discover that with a little gentle nudging, she could get him to disclose more than she had ever been able to find by snooping through his desk. Anna failed to mention to Benjamin that this was how she was getting her best information, and Benjamin never asked. There was an unspoken agreement between the two of them that in matters of spying, how and where the information was obtained did not matter. All that mattered was the brief moments of time that they got to spend together.
On this particular afternoon, Anna had been more than a little surprised, but pleased, to discover that the delivery that required her attention was borne by none other than Benjamin himself. He had explained to the slaves that he was doing one of the other merchants a favor by delivering the dry goods and, therefore, required the approval of the lady of the house. Anna opened the door to the pantry and gestured for Benjamin to enter, then she looked around. No one was in sight. Regardless, her husband was home today, so they had to be careful.
“No, no. Not there. Let me show you.” She reprimanded him louder than was necessary. Anna felt a need to justify why she was in the pantry with this man in case any of her husband’s men were close enough to hear. Before she had even gotten the door closed completely behind her, Benjamin pulled her into his arms and kissed her so deeply she went weak in the knees. Not that it mattered; his grip on her was such that there was no fear of falling. She clung to him and returned his kisses. The unexpectedness of their encounter fueled their fires so they burned white hot, much faster than normal.
The need was desperate, and having nowhere to go, Anna began to pull up her skirts. Benjamin caught on immediately and insinuated himself under her many layers and practically ripped the underclothes off her body to reach his final goal. Grasping her buttocks he lifted her up against the shelves of the pantry wall. She instinctively wrapped her legs around his waist, and he plunged into her again and again. Anna bit the knuckle on one hand to keep her moans at bay while she used her other to hold back a row of jars containing jellied fruits that were perilously close to being shaken to the ground. Her upturned skirt, creating a physical barrier between their torsos, did not diminish their pleasure in the least. Their fervor was quickly spent, as are all things that start so hot, and Benjamin lowered her to the ground, where it took her legs a moment to regain enough strength to hold her weight.
For several long moments, they breathed heavily and soaked in each other’s company. Anna was able to regain speech first.
“What are you doing here? Twice in one month, it’s too dangerous.”
He leaned in and kissed her, thanking her for her concern.
“I had to see you.” He looked down, readying himself for what came next. “Because I don’t know that I will be able to see you for some time. Or ever.”
Anna’s heart stopped and she had to remind herself how to speak. “What do you mean?” She dreaded the answer. Waiting a month was hard enough; she couldn’t imagine how to go from day to day not knowing when, or if, she would ever see him again, feel him, taste his mouth on hers.
“Since my uncle is back on his feet and can run his shop again, I’ve been recalled to my regiment. They say I’ve done enough here. Your spy ring has grown to such a degree that my participation is no longer needed.” He smiled at her ruefully. “I’m to take the information I have, meet up with General Meade for a debriefing, and then report back to the Second Maine Infantry.”
Before she could stop herself, her cheeks were wet with tears. It was worse than she could have suspected. Not only was he going away, he was going away to fight. She might not ever see him again. There were no words. He had become her every joy, her only reason for living, and he was being taken away. Seeing that she couldn’t speak, Benjamin continued.
“I knew it was dangerous, but I had to say goodbye in person. I’m sorry, my love. I have to go.” He looked at her and the sorrow in his eyes matched hers. “I need you to promise me something.” Anna nodded her head numbly. “Promise me you will stay safe. Pass whatever information you can, but don’t put yourself in harm’s way.”
Anna’s tears renewed their vigor, but she choked them back enough to speak. “Only if you promise to stay out of harm’s way as well.”
Benjamin promised. They both knew it to be a lie.
“I have to go now,” he said
Anna nodded her head and looked down in grief.
Benjamin lifted her chin until her eyes met his. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Benjamin kissed her softly, then passionately, then, before either of them could get carried away, he turned and left.
“Be safe, my Shopkeeper,” Anna whispered to the closed pantry door and stood staring for several seconds before she crumpled to the floor and sobbed. She did not care if anyone heard her, she did not care about anything anymore. Curling up on the floor, she cried herself into an exhausted sleep.
When Anna finally awoke, she had no idea how much time had passed. Painfully, she pulled herself up from the floor and took a leaden step toward the door. Her world awaited her on the other side, but she was not interested in a world that did not include Benjamin. She wanted to stay within the safety of the pantry walls but knew it was just short of a miracle that nobody had found her already, so she took a breath, opened the door, and reemerged into the bustle of the house.
The bustle she was accustomed to wasn’t there. She couldn’t have slept that long; they should be cleaning up from dinner, or at the least preparing the supper. There were to be guests tonight; how was everything so quiet? Her immediate concerns outweighed her heartache for a moment and her normal purposeful stride returned as she walked down the hall and into the kitchen. As she entered, all of the slaves stopped and stared at her for a moment, before one of them finally blurted, “Oh, we tried to find you, we did! There wasn’t nothin’ we could do, honest.”
“What happened? What are you talking about?”
“The massa, he come down here. He come down here lookin’ for you, ’cause he can’t find you. So we says you down in the pantry.”
Anna blanched. Did Andrew catch Benjamin? Seeing her face pale, the slave stopped in her narration.
“And what happened?” Anna pressed.
“He heads down that way. But, Mary…” She trailed off, not wanting to finish.
“Yes, what did Mary do?”
“Mary tries to stop him. Says she seen you elsewhere, but he don’t listen, so she spills the pot she’s holdin’ on him. She said it’s a accident. She don’t mean to, and it wasn’t hot or nothin’, but massa don’t care for none a that.”
Anna knew exactly how this story was going to end, the same way any story ended that involved a slave upsetting her husband: in a savage beating. Anna couldn’t believe it. Mary was her slave. He wouldn’t dare. He had never laid a hand on her. He wouldn’t dare. Anna’s fists were white-knuckled, and she realized she was clenching her teeth when she tried to talk.
“Did he…?” She couldn’t even finish the sentence. She did not need to, they all nodded their heads, eyes averted.
Fury flowed through her veins as Anna ran from the kitchen and up the stairs into the house proper. She knew to look for him in the parlor. Ever since her daughter’s sixth birthday, when she started piano lessons, Kady practiced in the morning then performed for her daddy in the afternoon. They had kept up this routine for twelve years, and today wasn’t any different. Andrew was leaning against a bookshelf, listening attentively. Anna ran into the parlor and flew at him, screaming and spewing forth every bit of pent-up anger and frustration she had ever harbored because of the injustice of her life. Her fists violently beat against his chest.
“How could you? She is my slave! You are not allowed to touch her!”
Her rage surprised him at first and she got in a few good hits, but it only took him a moment to regain himself. Deftly, as if shooing away nothing more than a fly, he pushed her away from him. She came at him again. Having had enough of her, he caught her by the wrist with one hand and slapped her so hard across the face with the other she would have fallen to the floor had he not been holding her up by the wrist. He stared at her coldly until her eyes stopped swimming.
“I may have given her to you, but like everything else on this plantation, you belong to me and, therefore, so does she. I will do as I see fit with my belongings.”
It was as if his words ripped off the bandage she had wound so tightly around all of her old wounds. Against her will, her lip began to quiver, and she tried with all her might to make it stop. She refused to let him see her cry.
Seeing the defiance in her eyes, he smiled cruelly and hit her again, this time releasing her wrist so that she fell to the floor.
“Now apologize to Kady for interrupting her playing and leave,” Andrew commanded.
Having never seen such emotion from her mother, Kady had stopped playing and was gaping at the scene in amazement.
Anna, holding her face, clenched her jaw to prevent any more of her fury from spilling out. Slowly she stood, her eyes trained on her daughter, daring her to smile at her mother’s humiliation.
Kady looked away, ashamed.
“My apologies, please continue your playing.”
Anna was already heading toward the door as she finished her sentence. Behind her, she could hear her daughter saying something in reply. Anna did not know what and did not care. Once out of sight, she sobbed a single sob and felt the warmth radiating off her swelling cheek. She was hurt and she was upset, but she knew Mary was worse off and it was all her fault. She made it to the small closet of a room next to her own that served as Mary’s sleeping chamber. Carefully, she opened the door so as not to startle Mary inside.
Anna gasped at what she saw. Not only was Mary’s face swollen from being hit, her shirt had been removed revealing more red welts across her back than Anna could count. Some had broken the skin producing trails of blood that obscured some of the lesser marks. Obviously, whoever had been commanded to drag her up here had been instructed to leave her as is and not tend to her wounds. Mary started to say something and tried to hoist herself up from the bed.
“No, no, no. Stay there, do not move. Oh, Mary…” Anna could not continue. Somebody had at least brought up a basin of water and a cloth, which Anna gratefully took and, ringing out the cloth, gently dabbed at the blood on Mary’s back.
“I am so sorry, Mary. This is all my fault. If I hadn’t been in that pantry with Benjamin, you wouldn’t have had to stop Andrew, and he never would have done this.”
Overcome, Anna stopped her ministrations and sobbed into her hands. Everything was falling apart. She had lost everything she cared about, and the one person she had to rely on had been beaten so badly Anna couldn’t even confide in her what had happened.
Mary was reaching out her hand to Anna.
“Oh, don’t move, don’t move. I’m sorry, I am so sorry. This is all my fault.” Anna went to daub at Mary’s back some more, but Mary shooed her hand away. Much to Anna’s amazement, Mary was trying to sit up. “Mary, no. Lie still, let me take care of you. I caused all of this, let me at least take care of you.”
“Don’,” Mary replied. It was hard to understand her, but Anna was almost positive she had said, “Don’t.”
“What? Don’t what? Don’t use the cloth? Does it hurt? Oh my, I am so sorry, Mary.” This time, Mary succeeded in sitting up, the grimace of pain on her face betraying the effort it cost her.
“Don’t.” Mary took the cloth from Anna and spit what looked like blood and a tooth into it, effectively clearing her mouth and making it easier for her to speak. “Don’t you do that.”
Anna was taken aback, hurt.
“Don’t do what? I’m trying to fix what I caused.”
“That. Don’t you dare do that! Don’t you dare take that beatin’ away from me by feelin’ guilty and blamin’ yourself. Because I didn’t do it for you!”
Anna was preparing to soothe Mary, to calm her down, when the shock of her statement hit her like a slap in the face. All thoughts flew from her mind, and all she could do was stare back at Mary in pained confusion.
Satisfied she wouldn’t be interrupted, Mary continued.
“You walk around here too big for your britches because you freein’ the Negroes. You sacrificin’ for the Negroes. But I know better. I know better even if no one else does. You doin’ this for you. To spite you’s husband and get back at you’s daddy. I might be a slave, but I ain’t dumb, so don’t you go pretendin’ that you is spyin’ for me, cause you ain’t. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
“We all do things for our own reasons, and we all do things for our own selves. I chose that beatin’ because it was all I had to give. There ain’t a person in this whole war that ain’t taken it personal. So don’t you dare take that beatin’ away from me! I did it so’s my girl and my boy, wherever he may be, won’t have to take no beat. I did it so’s my grand babies won’t have to take no beat. I did it so’s I will never have to take no beat never again. You can says you sorry till the sun come up again, but you can’t stop no whip hand. Only the back of a Negro can do that. So you let me do my part.”
The look in her eyes dared Anna to say something, to contradict or punish her for her insolence. But all Anna could do was look down, ashamed because Mary was right. She hadn’t once considered or thought about what this war meant to Mary and her people. She’d only ever thought of herself. Anna looked up to apologize, but the look in Mary’s eyes silenced the words before they were ever conjured. For the first time in their relationship, Mary got the final word in a conversation, and there wasn’t anything in the world that could have persuaded Anna to take that away from her.
An unspoken understanding passed between the two, and then with more dignity and grace than Anna had ever witnessed in one human being, Mary pulled her blouse on over her destroyed back and exited her room.