ILLINOIS TERRITORY – 1854
Thin slivers of sunlight pierced the stark gray clouds blanketing the horizon. A cold wind whistled through the crack of the poorly constructed sash of the bedroom window. Ruthie didn’t hear the howling sound or feel the frigid temperature.
Familiar wretchedness lapped over her heart as she knelt by the makeshift crib, a thing of rough timber tied together with scraps of rope.
She wanted to disbelieve the truth. But her eyes, leaking perpetual tears, saw how the woolen blankets no longer held her curly-haired toddler. He was gone.
No! She had tucked him into bed the previous night with a heartfelt kiss on his cheek. Her soul ached as she absorbed the painful truth. Massa had taken her son as he had stolen the others. This time she hadn’t been allowed to see him grow much older than his need for a wet-nurse. She had always known Massa would sell him. The urgency this time was the family’s desperate need for money.
Ruthie held her breast as her heart pounded against her ribcage. A low, persistent moan snared in her throat failed to swell into a soul-searing scream.
“Ruthie, you is disturbing me with all that sniveling. Git your ass in the kitchen and start making breakfast. I know you ain’t expecting me to fix it!” The annoyed, nasal tone emitted from the Missus’ sunny private reading room.
The rebuke forced Ruthie’s silence, but the pain gnawed her heart. She rose to her feet on legs barely able to support her statuesque frame. And as hard as she tried, she couldn’t stop looking at the empty crib, the rumpled blankets, and a discarded toy, a pitiful thing she’d made out of rags…which he had adored.
“Ruthie! Come here, girl!” The irritation in Missus’ tone meant further sufferings. This time, the infuriating voice streamed from the kitchen.
Ruthie straightened her back, stiffened her shoulders, and lifted her head. Today is going to be different, she promised herself.
Then she chastised herself. After all, she was to blame for wanting to keep him. For falling in love with his liquid brown eyes and curly black hair. For allowing the maternal stirrings to manifest each time she had nursed him.
“Ruthie! I ain’t going to call you again! We’re hungry. Git your ass out here! Or do you want me to come in there and beat you?”
“Comin’ Missus!” she tried to wrench the emotion out of her voice. By the time she emerged from her tiny room near the food cellar, she had pasted on a smile.
Missus, a plain, broad woman in a gingham dress, wore her dark hair in a bun. She sat alone at the kitchen table, sipping from a cup. Her small blue eyes gleamed as she lowered her drink and twisted her lips into a self-satisfied sneer.
Missus relished her pain. Now there wouldn’t be a brown baby to remind her of Massa’s peculiar and non-Christian tastes for his slave.
“Good mornin’, Missus,” Ruthie chimed in false cheerfulness.
Although she could silence her whimpers, she couldn’t stop the tears from spilling down her cheeks. She escaped the hostile scrutiny by wrapping herself in a shawl, grabbing the basket, and departing for the chicken coop. The hired hands, ne’er-do-well white men more likely to drink hooch than put in a day’s work, were repairing the fence. The sinister way they eyed her comings and goings made her nervous.
In the distance, she heard the girls, nine-year-old Glorie and her younger sister, Mabel, laughing, although she didn’t see them. She guessed they were somewhere close, playing a game like, Hide and Seek, as usual. As she filled her basket with fresh eggs, the ever-present agony bored a wider hole in the remnants of her heart.
It wasn’t right. Massa and Missus kept both their children when she couldn’t keep even one of hers.
Alone in the chicken coop, she sank to her knees and wept. With no one nearby to hear, she loudly cried as the pain ripped apart her soul.
She coughed out the wad of emotion lodged in her throat. “Coming, Missus!” She rose from her knees. A part of her hoped for the familiar numbness to take hold, but this time there wasn’t a blanketing detachment to coat over the debilitating injury. The loss continued to grate her heart into shreds.
She assumed her tasks as if watching herself perform them from a distance. She fried eggs, salt ham and biscuits, and later she watched as Missus and her golden-haired girls gobbled their meal. They chatted, laughed and ate as their lives continued. Slyly, she watched them as a nugget of pure hatred welled in the empty pit of her heart.
Next, she took out a tray to the field hands. The riffraff didn’t bother washing up. Instead, they dived into the food with the ferocious gluttony of wild pigs.
As she cleared and cleaned the morning dishes, she heard Massa’s lazy steed clip-clop to the stables. Ruthie caught her breath. She held onto a minuscule iota of optimism he hadn’t sold their son. Massa’s lone entrance into the house dashed all hope. Her missing son was not in the company of his father.
The gangly man with pocked skin unloaded sacks of flour, seeds and tobacco. Under his arm, he carried a bolt of cloth and two new dolls. He placed the items on the table, and then he looked around before swatting Ruthie on her derriere.
Tears formed, but she refused to cry.
She hated him. She always had. Briefly, she remembered how he’d made her a woman before she’d had her first bleeding. She’d been a child, wrenched from her mother’s care, sold and bedded in less than one day.
Massa wasn’t indeed a prosperous businessman. He’d sold his home and failing business in Philadelphia and all his slaves except Ruthie, to stake his claim in Illinois. His skill with farming and raising sheep was as dubious as his haberdashery talents had been.
“Henry!” Missus squealed at the store-bought items. She unrolled the cloth. “A new Sunday dress for church!” she gushed. “It’s lovely!”
He planted a tepid kiss on Missus’ faintly mustachioed lips. “Nothing but the best for my angels.” The girls each took a doll and began squabbling over which one was prettier.
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