By Jaqcqueline Sheehan
Published by Free Press
August 2003; 0743244443; 304 pages
I rode to earth on the backside of a comet. Mau Mau Bett saw me blaze across the sky and disappear into the moon, where I reined in the comet with my strong arms, tightened my thighs to make the comet turn, then scorched back across the sky. With the last light of the comet -- for I had nearly burned it up dashing around the moon -- I rode until I saw a man as tall as a tree, holding a burning pine knot in a smooth stone mortar. Next to him was a woman holding out her apron. I landed headfirst in her outstretched cloth, turning her apron black with my heat.
Mau Mau said every child is born a different way. Some are born by water, some by lightning, some by blizzards, and some squeeze in through the cracks in the wall. You never know until the baby arrives.
"How did Peter get here?" I asked.
"On a strong wind."
Strong wind was right enough. The first thing every morning, Peter woke me with his farting. He started before he woke up, and because we slept together, I was the one most affected. Peter was also as warm as burning wood. It was a challenge to stay warm in our cellar home and Peter's farting or drooling on my neck was a small inconvenience in return for his comfort.
The wet from the ground often seeped up between the boards that Bomefree and Mau Mau set on the dirt floor. It rained so hard in the land of Colonel Charles Hardenbergh that our cellar home was more often a pond than a refuge for people.
The boards were hewn by Bomefree, and each one was earned by the work that he did on top of his expected work for Master Charles. Every plank of wood was time when Bomefree squeezed out his own labors, often in the middle of the night. Peter and I slept on a sack filled with hay, as did Bomefree and Mau Mau. Living in a cellar is easiest for frogs and lizards (of these we had a continual parade), which thrive in the mud and mold. At times we could have housed fish. If it was raining when we went to sleep, Peter and I could be sure that the water would seep through to us before morning. Peter was such a sound sleeper that often he did not notice until after he woke. He was prone to say, "Isabella wet the bed again." He knew I had not. He also knew I could not answer him back in a loud voice. Our voices were never to carry beyond the cellar. Mau Mau had beaten that knowledge into us early on.
Mau Mau said that when Peter slept, his spirit traveled far. It was my job to hold on to his warm body until his spirit returned. She said people who can sleep so deeply in this hard life are blessed.
Our mother fretted about the water in our home, but what I remember most is the smell of her skin. Later in my life, I would smell many perfumes, some of which came from France, and none of them compared to the skin and hair of my mother. She was named Mau Mau Bett by Colonel Hardenbergh. Her mother named her Elizabeth, although none but my father ever called her by her given name.
Mr. Charles came by my family when I was a baby and Peter was not yet born. We were owned first by Colonel Hardenbergh, and when he died, his son Mr. Charles gained us. I do not remember our first home with the Colonel, which was a cottage with a small plot of garden space allotted to us for growing the extra that we needed. My ten older brothers and sisters were born in the cottage, all sold off or given as gifts to other Dutch folks before I was born. The Colonel named me Isabella after a queen he was partial to talking about. Mau Mau said that the few other slaves already called us the white people's niggers because of her and Bomefree's favored status. The old man's naming me after a long-dead queen from a place I later learned was called Spain only served to create a distance between us and the other colored people in Hurley. It was not easy for anyone to stay long away from Mau Mau, even if they felt she was favored. To the disenchanted, she said that the Colonel was an old man, and his thinking was starting to wander with age, so why else would he name a colored child after a queen? To me she whispered, "He finally got one right."
Mr. Charles was better than most, and if we did not steal, lie, or act disrespectfully, our chances of not being unfairly beaten were good. A fair beating was one you deserved, and the strokes were given in accordance with the behavior. A fair beating came as no surprise. An unfair beating was given for something we did not do, or was delivered with no relationship to the wrongful behavior.
My father was called Bomefree, which is Dutch for "tree." He was said to be named for his tall height and his powerful strength. I once asked him what kind of tree he was, because Mau Mau told me about many different kinds of trees. He said he was just a plain tree.
Trees had sweet bark, or smooth skin, or leaves that danced and rattled in the breeze, or bubbles of pine that could burn bright if you were lucky enough to find one on a dark walk through the woods. My mother was very fond of white birch trees. We were likely to find them crashed to the ground after a fierce windstorm, so it was not for their physical strength that my mother rubbed her cheek against the moon-white bark. It was for their defiance and unlikeliness in the midst of the more brutish trees that could survive lightning bolts, thick wet snow, or the porcupine's ravaging teeth on the protective bark. The white birch chose to grow despite nature handing it the worst conditions.
If my father was a tree, he was the kind of tree that grows on the edge of a cliff and is turned different directions from the wind; it made him hold on all the tighter as he dug his roots in harder, and the trunk, roots, and branches were grown gnarled and tough.
My first language was Dutch. In our part of New York, all the people, colored and white alike, spoke Dutch. It is a round language, smooth as river rocks, and there are still moments when I tumble back into it when I talk to God. The first time I heard English, I was walking with my mother and Peter, carrying spun wool on the instructions of Master Charles. We were all three bundled like oxen with the precious cargo of hard-worked wool. A man on horseback pounded up to us on the road that led out of Hurley. He pulled cruel on the reins, his horse striking a look that I had seen before, meaning that it was torn between wanting to throw the man off and fearing the payment if it did. The man spoke to us in slapping sounds, as if he had no soft spot in his mouth or throat. He cracked away with his voice, getting agitated by degree as we stood waiting for sensible words to come out of him. He brought his horse closer, and I could smell the sweat on the animal's tired body. The man snapped his arm at Mau Mau and made more sounds, this time with a snarl on his lips. Finally, she spoke to him, saying that we were taking spun wool to a farm a day's walk from where we stood. He arched an eyebrow at her and spoke again; she repeated her message more slowly, and he turned one ear toward her. I could see him thinking over the situation. He then dismissed us with the flap of his hand and rode off. Mau Mau told us that people who lived farther away spoke in different words than we did, but there was no reason for us to have to learn them.
It was from Bomefree that I learned trees do not live forever; they are born, live their life, then die. Bomefree was already in decline, his knuckles bulging and twisting, by the time I grew to his waist.
I looked at my father's knuckles and then held out my arm to look at mine. My hands were smooth and the color of fire-dried acorns, of which we had many. I clenched my hand into a fist, and my knuckles poked closer to the skin, making the pointy places a lighter shade of acorn. Mau Mau's knuckles were smaller than my father's, but larger than those of most men, including Master Charles. Her fingers were long, and they went in the right direction, which Bomefree's no longer did. Mau Mau rubbed lard mixed with the bark of the quaking leaf tree into his aching joints and told him stories of summer heat and dry breezes in the land of her people. The ashy color from his knees darkened and glowed with the warmth from Mau Mau's hands.
"Oh, Elizabeth, tell us a story of the children. Tell us a story that will make my bones young again."
Mau Mau held in her the lives of all her children, and all those who went before her who had time to leave her a story, a touch, or enough of a spark to be remembered. Mau Mau and Bomefree had ten children before Peter and me, most of whom were sold by the old Colonel, while some were offered as gifts to the other Hardenberghs of Ulster County. The taking of each one of the children was chiseled in a story of pain, and Mau Mau did not spare us such stories. But we never heard of a child's terrified screams without hearing of who this child was or how she was tied forever to Mau Mau and Bomefree and all of us.
Margaret was a first sister, and we loved to hear of her in particular. Her story warmed the bones of my old father. We sat close to my mother, in our cellar home, me with my head leaning up against her knee. Margaret was born on spring rain and flooded streams. All the snow was gone from around the cottage and all over the Colonel's large farm. No ice firmed the river to the east, and all the animals and birds were furious to birth their babies. When Mau Mau walked to the big barn to collect eggs, she saw a robin's egg pecked in half, free of its charge. When she picked up the blue shell, she knew her child would soon be on the way. It was a spring filled with birth after a cold white winter in which many animals had starved. The snow had been too deep for the deer to forage, making them easy targets for the farmers. So many of the weakened deer were shot that even the Colonel, who was a terrible marksman, had a surplus of venison and gave a withered hindquarter to Bomefree.
Margaret gushed into this world with the snowmelt from the west mountains. Mau Mau called her Tadpole, for she never stopped loving the water. When Mau Mau was set to spinning wool for weeks on end, Margaret (as the Colonel named her) could be kept quiet for hours if left with a small bucket of water. To this, Margaret would add twigs, grass, feathers, and these things she would chase about in the watery sea. Like all of us, Margaret was sturdy in bones and size. When she had gone through but a few springs, she could tote her wooden bucket herself, filling it with fresh water from the well. When she was a taller child, and before the Colonel could set her to work, she spent the warm months by the stream near the cottage until the pink soles of her feet were wrinkled into a terrible mess. She had such a way with the water creatures that she took to catching the trout in the stream. Nobody ever saw her catch them, but she said she held her hands in the water until they came to her. In the last summer before she was taken away, Margaret filled her old wooden bucket with great frequency. It was at this time that the Colonel began to note her strength and endurance and told Mau Mau that the time would soon come to sell her.
It was always at this point in the story that my stomach began to tighten up and my blood to beat faster; I always hoped that the ending would be different. I thought if Mau Mau would tell it differently, then Margaret would still be catching trout, and I could run up to her and say, "Tadpole, Tadpole," even though I had never in my life seen her.
The Colonel said that he sure hoped Mau Mau would produce more children like Margaret, because she looked unusually strong and good-tempered, which was the best one could hope for with slaves. She was taken away by the Colonel's brother-in-law, who saw fit to put a bag over Margaret when he drove off with her, but he didn't need to do that. She never made a sound, didn't speak again until the following summer, Bomefree heard, as he had ways of finding out about his children. When he was told she wasn't talking, and was being beaten for being feeble-minded, he got permission from the Colonel to walk to where she was, which took him the fullest part of a day and a night. He brought her the wooden bucket and put it where her master couldn't see it. She spoke then and was no more trouble to them.
I missed Margaret terribly when I heard this story, and the sadness that it brought up in me seemed to taste like fish and smell like tadpoles. But at least I knew her from Mau Mau's stories, and I knew her from the sadness and from the picture of pink-soled feet in the stream outside a cottage when times were not so hard in some ways.
Copyright © 2003 Jacqueline Sheehan
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Born a slave, survived a free bondwoman, reborn an outspoken abolitionist, Sojourner Truth died a heroine of graceful proportions. But the story of her inner struggles is as powerful and provocative as her accomplishments and could be captured only in fiction. This emotionally searing novel beautifully infuses the historical atrocities of the 1800s with psychological speculation of who Sojourner Truth really was, beyond her social and political persona. Reminiscent of White Oleander, Bastard Out of Carolina, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jacqueline Sheehan's book tells the story of Sojourner Truth as it has never been told before.
"I rode to earth on the backside of a comet." So begins Jacqueline Sheehan's marvelous debut novel, based largely on the early life of Sojourner Truth. Born at the turn of the nineteenth century to slaves of a New York State Dutch gentleman farmer, young Isabella was sold off at the age of nine to a succession of owners -- some cruel, some indifferent, all assuming that she, as a colored girl, would never feel or think as anything but a child. On the contrary, Isabella has dreams and fears and a deeply felt faith that somehow sees her through the indignities and beatings she must tolerate.
Once Isabella achieves her hard-won freedom, however, the path she walks as Sojourner Truth is riddled with obstacles: her son, still a slave, is sold south into the harshest of brutalities, only to be saved by her relentless efforts to wrest him back. Her young daughters must likewise remain enslaved until they come of age, their family scattered and adrift. Her newfound religion leads her into a cultish environment of frauds and charlatans, and she narrowly avoids being accused of the murder of a dearly loved friend. Ultimately, she triumphs against the most enormous of odds and reunites her family under one roof, only to be called by God to speak out against slavery and for women's rights as long as she draws breath.
In a feat of literary ventriloquism, Jacqueline Sheehan puts the story back in Sojourner's voice, lending the telling a naked, crystalline quality that transports the reader to a time when survival could mean sacrificing little pieces of one's soul. Truth is a testament to one woman's strength, a powerful lesson in courage.(back to top)
Jacqueline Sheehan is a practicing psychologist, essayist, and short story writer and has been published in Peregrine, Kaleidoscope, Earth's Daughters, Anseo, and Hampshire Life. She lives in Florence, Massachusetts.