freedom came, its name was Prince. On loan to a nearby farm, where he
had sired a brood, he had not heard until his return. People saw him running,
'way out across the field. Some took off their hats and stopped to watch
him, their hands shielding their eyes from the sun, from whence there
came a more acceptable messenger, his shirt loose and flapping, his arms
He arrived to stand before them breathless, his eyes dancing, his face
aglow. He smiled, displaying the empty spaces where there once resided
three teeth kicked out by the boot of a Negro overseer; and God spoke
in the voice of a fool.
"We free!" he shouted.
The people stood stunned in the silence of incredulity and joy.
"We free!" he repeated, and tilted his head in puzzlement at their silence.
Sister set down her hoe. She leapt into his arms, her skirt entangling
her legs. He spun her around, chanting. "We free! We is free!"
She lost her hat. Her knees were exposed. She did not care. Freedom had
They were married the next year, on an April day, beneath an elm. Sister
wore a crown of hibiscus and juniper. A garland draped one shoulder and
encircled her narrow waist. Barefoot in a gown made of bleached white
sacks, she felt like royalty beside her Prince as they recited their vows
in the setting sun, beneath the elm.
They came back to make love there when the guests had dispersed and the
sky had grown dark and starry; and again on the night of their first anniversary,
and the next year and the next.
Until the babies became children, and her life an uninterrupted blur of
domesticity and toil. An overtime schedule of parenting and hard work
made the frivolities of youth an indulgence she could no longer spare
the time for, much less the energy. Besides, they had moved to town for
a time, and the pebble-strewn dirt road to the elm made for an inhospitable
journey. And so it was honey let's just do it in the yard it's more convenient;
and then honey let's just do it on the floor; and then honey I'm tired
let's just do it tomorrow; and finally, they did not do it at all or talk
about doing it or, eventually, even think about it.
But when he was gone, she could think of little else: his hands his mouth
his breath and his eyes, wide with wonder and excitement when he came.
Sometimes, she recalled the smell of hibiscus and juniper, on a dew-soaked
April morning, beneath the elm.
And there lived in Sister the memory of things horrid to recall; things
she had lived in her own time; things passed to her from her mother, and
her mother, who had received them from hers. Sister chose not to recall.
She would not cause her daughter to recall. They would be free of this
memory, and pure. The former days were past, carefully interred, and securely,
she thought; and all things had become new.
Lickskillet, Warren County, North Carolina
There had been a time when life was new, and love untried; when love,
in fact, had filled these very rooms. That had been when she was young
and thoughtless. She had assumed that things would always be this way.
Never had it occurred to her that he was not "future-minded." The too
lavish gifts during the early days of their marriage, she had accepted
eagerly and with appreciation. He was a good man, hardworking and devoted.
Maturity, purpose, and a vision for their future would come later. She
had been sure of it, as she squeezed his large brown hand, dry even in
the sweltering summer heat. She had envisioned growing old together.
But not so soon, and not like this. She could not recall just how or when
the fabric of their well-woven love had become frayed at its edges, the
delicate porcelain bracelets and carved figurines becoming relics of a
long past and foolish time of extravagance. The babies had come in rapid
succession, leaving her strained and impatient, as cruel, cold winters,
scant meals, and past due debts ushered in a harsh reality.
They whispered of her Sunday mornings, supposing that she did not hear:
He be wit' his woman on Thursday nights, while she prayin'. Straight-backed,
steely-eyed, Sister brushed past these women in their severe white dresses
and, one child's small hand held tightly in each of hers, she lowered
herself stiffly onto a pew, all the while staring straight ahead at the
mammoth cross that lent a calculated austerity to the otherwise humble
schoolhouse, which on Sundays doubled as the Bull Swamp Methodist Church.
Thus seated, she would squeeze her eyes shut against the hot torrent of
tears that pushed past her lashes to stream down her carefully powdered
cheeks. Always, she thanked God first for her height and carriage. They
communicated a haughtiness and indifference that she did not possess but
needed desperately to convey, enabling her to disguise her pain as piety
until it subsided, finally, mercifully, if only briefly.
And after a time, she would no longer wonder about his paramours, about
who, how long, how frequently, or how many. These questions, like most
others, would cease to matter. Gone--the artless girl of so many hopes
and unspoken pleas ago; gone, her eyes would tell him each time he looked
at her, to some distant place where his touch no longer melted her and
his tears no longer moved her and his words, thankfully, could no longer
This morning, as on many others, she rose before dawn to begin her washing.
But this time, she paused in the doorway of her shotgun hut, squinting
at the darkness that stretched ahead, listening, but hearing only the
breathing of her sleeping children.
Last night, she had dreamed an indecipherable dream of yellow-eyed witches
and devilment, and things unspoken, unheard of. She had dreamed of pirates
and thieves transporting human treasure stolen from another continent;
of loss and sorrow and heaviness too awesome to bear; and of a broken
heart, and contrite spirit. She had dreamed of a great black bird, its
wings spanning an ocean. Without understanding, she had nodded and said:
Yes, Lord. Thy perfect will be done.
Neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for
me. Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned
of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child . . .
Lickskillet, North Carolina
I cry in the daytime,
but thou Hearst not;
and in the night season,
and am not silent.
This night Sister did not pray. She had deliberately not prayed for weeks
now, taking care not to whisper thanks in the mornings or before she ate
her meals, as had been her custom; not leading the children in prayer
as she tucked them in at night. They looked at her curiously, and she
felt all the more the glaring omission, the absence of God in her daily
But she had felt God's absence from her heart for some time now. She was
angry. Mama is angry at Daddy, the children thought. Or at God. She kissed
them lovingly, the boy a replica of his father, handsome and sly; the
girl a reddish brown, testament to a Cherokee ancestor whose name was
not recorded in the family bible. Another child, a burnished boy with
blazing eyes, had succumbed to cholera in infancy. She wondered if that
loss had been the beginning of their end. Her eyes closed for a moment
as she queried God for the thousandth time. Then she reminded herself,
as she blew out the lamp and closed the door against the puzzled expressions
on the faces of her children, of her own resolve not to think on such
things, to not think or care or feel, and above all, to refrain from prayer,
from the thought that anyone would hear her if she prayed. Faith involved
risk, and she lacked these days the fortitude to believe.
Night after night she steeled herself against the need to vent, to cry
and labor before God as she had been taught, to unburden herself and fall
to thankful, restless sleep. She was angry.
For a decade, she had done all things correctly, a soldier of faith and
humility, her citizenship celestial, her allegiance to her man and her
God--not the god of her oppressors, but the God of her longing, her prayers.
And him. She had withstood his self-indulgences and insults to her personhood,
his myriad small betrayals, those countless accumulated injuries. She
had been the obedient servant, mopping up his messes, both literal and
figurative, defending and excusing his transgressions, stopping just short
of calling him Lord.
She had been studious and attentive to God's will, careful to select a
God-fearing man, and still, he had turned suddenly, it seemed to Sister,
into someone else; someone who could leave her behind as offhandedly as
a man changing his clothes, discarding her as soiled laundry, yet another
mess for her to clean up: the wreckage of her own visage to tidy up and
hide, again atoning, her own blood covering his sins; the malady of her
own spirit to heal alone, unloved, and untouched.
Wearily she lay down and blew out the single candle that gave light to
My God, my God
why hast thou forsaken me?
Why art thou so far . . .
Slowly, she succumbed to sleep, and a woman appeared quite suddenly, either
in a dream or in the backyard. Sister was not certain. Intrigued, she
rose to her knees to better view the scene outside the small, square window
that faced the backyard. The woman, slight but muscular, with an oddly
cunning, almost insane look about her face, was kneeling on a dirt floor
strewn with straw. She was quite dark, with striking features and a muslin
scarf askew on her short, tight locks. Sister could, she felt, almost
reach into this other world, both real and surreal, and touch the bony,
earnest face, trace the outline of the bulbous lips the color of raisins
that moved silently. The woman leaned over suddenly, doubled over with
her face to the ground. She appeared to be praying. Then, she sat up resolutely,
and Sister noticed for the first time one small breast exposed by a savage
tear in her dress, one ashen knee scraped bloody, and ten broken, dirty
fingernails as the woman brought her hands to her face and cried. Touched
by the woman's distress, Sister searched for words of comfort. A slight
movement not six feet from the woman caught Sister's eye; and there, on
the dirt floor, lay a tiny bloody mass of human flesh and exposed bone,
gasping desperately and hopelessly for life.
The woman vanished with all of her surroundings.
Sister awoke with a start.
Each morning thereafter, Sister awoke with an aching jaw and grinding
teeth, surprised to find how tightly they had been clenched throughout
the night. Her back began to give her trouble. Her hair fell out in clumps.
And a spirit came to rest upon her. Subtle at first, it went unnoticed
as she went about her tasks: Aloneness; then Sadness followed. Before
she knew it, they had settled comfortably, growing sturdy and rotund.
The others, Anger and Worry and Death, also flourished unnoticed. Each
day began to blur into the next as Sister slowly came undone, detaching
herself from her children, her surroundings, her miserable reality.
Before long, her absence from the pews at Bull Swamp caught the attention
of the overtly righteous: Those who with practiced eye sought out and
discovered opportunities for public displays of charity and compassion.
This vanguard brought the following disturbing report to the Bull Swamp
Motherhood Board and Missionary Group Number Two: Sister had been feeling
poorly. Her usually tidy home was in disarray, and the children needed
tending to. Certain of their heavenly reward, the women determined that
they would visit Sister at home.
Excerpted from Sapphire's Grave by Hilda Gurley Highgate
Copyrightę 2002 by Hilda Gurley Highgate. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday,
a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this
excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from