Authors: Elisa Carbone
To Miss Ann Maria
Unity, Maryland, 1853
“Mamma said we've got to, that's why.” Ann Maria fairly dragged her brother up the hill toward the sound of barking dogs.
A cloud enveloped the moon, and the shadows shifted. Addison stopped abruptly, listening. “What's that?” he whispered.
“Your own breathing,” she snapped. “Would you come
Addison took several more hesitant steps, then stopped again. “If Master Charles catches us, we'll get a whipping. A bad one,” he said.
He was trying to scare her into giving it up, she knew. He was the older one, so why was she the braver one? “It's Richard's birthday celebration tonight, and not Master Charles nor Mistress Carol is going to take notice of these scrawny dogs howling at the moon.”
“What if they bite my hand off?” Addison still refused to move.
Ann sighed, exasperated. “Mamma has fed these hounds lots of times. Papa, too. You see them missing a hand?”
The moon peeked out again and Ann saw Addison's round eyes, bright and fearful. More gently she said, “Let's just do it quick, so we can get back.” The smell of the fried cornmeal mush in her apron made her stomach grumble for its own supper. She broke the slab of mush in two and gave half to Addison.
They crept up the grassy slope. As they approached, the dogs’ barking turned to howling. There was the wooden worm fence, the maple tree around which the hounds’ chains were wrapped, and beyond them the summer kitchen and the stone house, with warm yellow light shining from the windows.
“Shhh…shhh…shhh…” Ann shushed with each step— shushing either the dogs or her pounding heart, she wasn't sure which.
Two pairs of eyes gleamed as if lit from the inside. The hounds panted now, yelped, and strained against their chains toward the smell of corn and fatback.
Ann ran the last few steps to the fence. One hound lunged at her, the other at Addison beside her. She thrust the cornmeal mush toward the sharp teeth and glowing eyes, and the next moment the dogs were sniffing the ground for crumbs and she and Addison were wiping dog spit off their shaking hands.
The door of the stone house opened, and in the sliver of light that was the doorway stood Ellie, the Prices’ house slave. “They're quiet now, Master Charles. You still want me to have a look?”
The answer from inside must have been “no,” because the door closed.
Ann and Addison raced down the hill, their bare feet slapping the well-worn trail. Shimmery light peeked from their own cabin. It came from the one window, from around the ill-fitting door, and from between the logs that lay sideways to form the walls.
They burst inside. “We did it, Mamma!” Addison landed a kiss on his mother's sweaty cheek as she stood in front of the hearth managing one skillet of beet greens and another of frying mush.
“Go wash up, then,” their mamma ordered. “Those dogs’ mouths are slimy as a slug's belly.”
Once Addison was safely outside, Ann turned to her oldest brother, Augustus. He was carefully whittling a rounded piece of wood for the chair he was building. He frowned at his work.
“He was scared,” Ann said matter-of-factly.
Augustus kept whittling. “And you weren't?”
Ann squared her shoulders. “Not like he was.”
Augustus shook his head. His curled-up eyelashes might have given his face a gentle look if his eyes had not been so steely hard. “You better start acting like a girl sometime soon,” he said, “or no boy is ever going to take a shine to you—especially with those freckles.”
Ann glared at him and ran a finger over one cheek. “Mamma says my freckles are nice,” she said defiantly. She had seen herself in the looking glass in the Prices’ parlor—seen her dark, wide-set eyes and upturned mouth—and she honestly didn't think the freckles were a problem. “And anyway, why would I want to ever hold hands with a boy or any such thing?”
Joseph, her youngest brother, rescued them from further
argument. “Were you really not scared?” he asked. He was wriggling on the dinner bench, where he was supposed to keep still. Ann sat with him to continue the story.
“Their eyes were on fire, and when we got close we could feel the heat, just like Mamma's hearth there.”
Joseph's mouth twisted as his imagination flew. “If I was there, I'd punch those dogs.” He jumped onto the bench and swung a vigorous right hook. “I'd punch them so hard they'd fly up on Master Charles's roof! Then they'd fly all the way to Baltimore!” He hopped off the bench and continued punching the air, his thin arms quick as grasshopper legs.
“Joseph, you sit on that bench where I put you.” Mamma brought a huge bowl of steaming greens to the table. “Ann Maria, go tell your father and your sister that no one in their right mind works a garden all night, and it's time for supper.”
Ann was thankful for the chance to go outside again. The heat of the day had gathered in the house along with the cooking fire, but outside it was already cool, and a soft wind carried the songs of crickets and cicadas. Nearing their small garden plot, she heard the chink-chink-chink of the hoe and heard her father's deep voice joined with Catharine's high one in a hymn. She approached but said nothing, just watched them and listened.
Her father's tall frame made a dark silhouette. She knew the hands with which he moved the hoe were rough and callused, but they were also gentle when they held her face to tell her something important. Her father's skin was a rich chestnut, her mother's as light as just about any white woman's, and the Weems children were a rainbow assortment of gold and auburn tones.
Catharine's form was a heap on the ground where she sat to weed the rows of beans, scooching herself along without standing up as a way to save her strength. Her tight braids stuck out from her head like dark ribbons. Moonlit nights were Catharine's best times to work in the garden.
“Mamma says it's time to eat,” Ann said finally.
“Well, then it must be time to eat,” her father replied. He stood the hoe in the garden basket, helped Catharine up with one hand, and reached for Ann with the other. She took his arm and hung on it between steps.
“You think I'm not tired enough, I need to cart you back to the house swinging on my arm like a squirrel?”
Ann giggled, and stopped tiring her father out. She took a quick look at Catharine to see how she was doing. It was a habit she had developed after Mistress Carol first decided Catharine was old enough to work in the fields and put a hoe in her hands. Each time Catharine worked, her rattly chest got more and more rattly as she swung the hoe, until she couldn't breathe at all and she fell to the ground, her lips a scary blue. Ann wasn't sure what got Catharine breathing again—her own screams for Mamma, Mamma's shouts to Heaven, or Catharine's stubborn will—but every time, Catharine gasped and coughed like her chest was a railroad car full of rocks, and started breathing.
Ann thought one time should have been enough to make Mistress Carol decide to put Catharine to work in the house and inn instead. But it took three times, and probably would have taken a fourth if Mamma hadn't volunteered Addison for work in the fields even though he was just a bitty thing at the time.
They stopped outside to wash, then opened the door and
were met with heat, filled with the wonderful smell of fried cornmeal mush and greens.
“Leave that door open, John,” her mother told her father. “I'll take the mosquitoes along with the cool air tonight.”
They slid onto the benches, heads bowed, and waited.
“Lord God, we thank Thee.” John Weems's strong voice rose and fell with the cadence of his prayer. “We thank Thee for the mighty blessing of this food. We thank Thee for the mighty blessing of this home. We thank Thee for the mighty blessing of this family. Amen.”
“Amen” echoed all around.
There was, as usual, little talking during the meal. Everyone was too hungry to waste time jabbering between mouthfuls. And there was, as usual, not enough to fill Ann's stomach to where she didn't feel hungry anymore. She reminded herself that Sunday was just a few days away, ran her fingers through the grease in the bottom of the greens bowl and sucked at the last of the flavor.
“Ann Maria Weems, did I raise you to have the manners of a barn cat?” her mother scolded.
“No, ma'am.” Ann tucked her greasy hand under the table.
Catharine elbowed her. “You wash, I'll dry tonight.”
They rose to clear the table. Joseph, Addison, and Augustus climbed the ladder to the sleeping loft, and her father and mother sat in the two rough-hewn chairs to work: her father on his chair-building and her mother on mending for the Prices.
As she leaned over the wooden washtub, the smell of lye soap filling her nose, Ann's mind went back to a subject it had
been working on for several days, ever since Richard announced his upcoming birthday celebration.
“Hmmm?” Her mother's lips held a new piece of thread. One solitary candle gave a flickering light for her work and lit up her almond eyes and smooth cheeks.
“How old do you figure I am?” Ann asked.
“I figure you're not a little girl, because you have no braids.”
Ann smiled sheepishly. She'd never had the patience to sit still and have her hair braided properly, and her mother and sister finally gave up trying.
“And you're not a woman,” her mother continued, “because you asked me this fool question. So you're somewhere in between.”
Ann's smile fell. It was not a fool question. White children always knew how old they were. She'd seen adults at the inn ask them, and even the youngest ones would hold up five fingers or three fingers. Richard Price knew what
he was born, and it had a name and a number to it.
“I reckon you're about the same age as young Master Richard,” her father said. He whacked a chair rail into its hole with a wooden mallet.
Ann swung around. “Really? How do you figure?”
“I heard his folks saying how he was born the year it didn't rain. That's the same year you came into this world.”