«by Gayle O’Brien Hookline Books Bookline & Thinker Ltd Published by Hookline Books 2011 Bookline & Thinker Ltd #231, 405 King’s Road London SW10 ...»
You’re 17 years old. I started wearing a corset when I was 13.” 6 Samantha rolled her eyes. Her mother raised her hand to strike her, and Samantha winced. Since the planning for Samantha’s debutante ball began her mother’s fuse had burned down to its crackling base. It wasn’t that Samantha did not want her debutante ball – indeed, she wanted it very much. She wanted the music, the dancing, the swishing of ball gowns and the smell of men’s cologne. She wanted to be the center of attention, the envy of her female peers and the desire of every man in the room. Never mind that she already knew who she wanted to marry – in fact, had known since she was five-years old – but a debutante ball was a rite of Southern passage and she intended to enjoy every second of it.
If only her mother would remember that this was Samantha’s debutante ball, not hers. Or Georgia’s.
Her mother snapped her two fingers. Oma and Chimi, two house slaves, entered carrying Samantha’s debutante gown like it was rice paper.
Samantha’s mother had brought it back from Paris. The pale silk bodice was fortified with whalebone, making it practically stand on its own. The skirt was made of a dozen layers of organza and chiffon, embroidered with hundreds of tiny, dark pink roses. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful dress Samantha had ever seen. She reached out to touch it, and her mother slapped her hand.
Oma and Chimi lifted the dress over Samantha’s head and guided it over the hoop skirt. She watched their dark hands manipulate the pale, delicate fabric. Oma stood behind with a button hook and began fastening the 120 satin buttons up the back of the bodice. Samantha tried to ignore the corset digging into her ribs.
Halfway up the bodice, Oma stopped. “I can’t do no more, ma’am,” she said.
“What?” said Samantha’s mother. “What do you mean?” Oma gently turned Samantha so her mother could see the back of the dress.
A terrible pause filled the room.
“Why doesn’t it fit?” No one dared answer.
“Measure her.” Oma pulled the cloth measure from her apron and wrapped it around Samantha’s waist.
“21 inches, ma’am,” she whispered.
“Give me that.” Samantha’s mother snatched the measure and pulled it tight around Samantha’s middle. No one breathed.
Samantha braced herself. If her mother slapped her for anything, it would be this. Instead she shouted: “Get the dress off her. Now!” 7 Oma quickly undid the buttons. The dress was lifted over Samantha’s head.
“Leave us,” she said. The two slaves exited quickly and quietly.
Samantha stood while rage seeped through her mother’s low voice like smoke out of a cigar. “Do you want to explain to me how your waist got to be 21 inches?” Samantha opened her mouth, but nothing came out. How could she explain the inexplicable? The truth was that most days her body behaved independently of her intentions. It was changing, almost daily, and with those changes came an ever-evolving list of desires. Her body wanted food, in all its scrumptious shapes and forms: corn bread, caramelized peaches, creamed collard greens, maple-cured pork, biscuits and gravy. It wanted water, milk, lemonade and tea so steeped and sweetened it resembled Virginia soil after a thunderstorm. Her mother had always made clear the correlation between food and a woman’s figure, but even on the days and weeks when Samantha resisted her cravings, her body still seemed determined to mature. The mirror did not always catch these modifications, but Samantha could feel them: the widening of her hips, the slight narrowing of her waist, and the ballooning of her chest. She knew the latter was the real reason her bodice was now too small, but how could she justify this to her mother, who was repulsed by the human body’s needs and functions?
“Mother, I…” she stammered.
Her mother’s expression shifted from rage to disappointment.
“How could you, Samantha? How could you do this to me?” “I…I didn’t mean to, Mother. I just...” “You come out in one week. Don’t you realize how important this is?
Do you know how much money your father spent on the gown alone?” “I know, Mother. I wish I could…” Her mother sighed. “There is only one thing to do. Nessie!” The slave appeared so quickly it was as if she’d never left the room.
“Until the cotillion on Friday, my daughter is only allowed water, apples and plain bread. Understood?” Nessie curtseyed. “Yes, ma’am.” Samantha’s mother left the room. Samantha fought back tears while Nessie quietly untied the ribbons of the hoop skirt and let it fall to the floor.
“Come on, Miss Sammy. Step on out.” Nessie held Samantha’s elbow as she stepped outside the frame.
“Get me out of this corset, Nessie.” Nessie stepped back. “But Miss Sammy, you know your mama wants it on all…” 8 “I said, get me out!” Even Samantha was surprised by the volume of her voice.
Nessie undid the knot and loosened the strings. Samantha took in several deep breaths, as if she’d been under water too long.
Nessie put her hand on Samantha’s shoulder. “You want to talk, Miss Sammy?” Samantha sneered. “Leave me alone, Nessie. You definitely wouldn’t understand.” Nessie left the room and closed the door. Samantha pushed the corset off her body and kicked it across the room.
Samantha’s palomino was waiting for her in front, just as she’d instructed.
Free of the corset and hoop skirt, she wore her canvas riding dress, durable for riding, but cool compared to the silks, wools and taffeta her mother wore regardless of the weather.
Milo, the horse slave, held onto the palomino’s bridle. When Samantha burst through the front door with her saddle bag, he took one look at her dress and shook his head.
“Oh, no, Miss Sammy.” “Take the saddle off, Milo.” He slowly undid the straps. “You know your mama wants you riding side saddle. And in your real riding outfit.” He set the saddle onto the ground and made a stirrup with his hands. Samantha pushed her boot into his pale palms. “Miss Sammy, you trying to get me whipped?” “Give me my saddle bag,” she said.
Milo tisked. “Saddle bag, but no saddle. Honestly, Miss Sammy.
What’s your mama gon’ say?” “She won’t say anything because no one is going to tell her.” Samantha kicked her feet into the horse’s sides. As she galloped away from the main house, towards the cotton fields, she turned her face toward the sun.
Spring had arrived early in Virginia. The grass was dotted with daffodils, and the woods were blanketed in bluebells. In a little over a month, cotton planting would begin. For now the field contained row after row of dry branches and brush. Every field hand she’d ever known had scars on their hands from those sharp cotton bristles, miniature versions of the whipping scars that streaked across bare, black backs like the trail of a dozen shooting stars. “The marks of insolence,” her grandfather used to call them.
Once past the cotton fields the landscape gave way to lush woodland.
Mont Verity, Samantha’s family’s plantation, was 500 acres in all, 100 of which were filled with ancient trees that her grandfather claimed had been 9 inhabited by Indians before the family bought the land. Samantha guided her horse towards the stream that marked the property border with Dominion Royale, the Fabre family plantation, and dismounted.
While the horse drank from the stream, Samantha stepped over stumpy rocks to reach a large, flat boulder in the center. Had it been summer, she could have waded in and let her feet dangle in the rushing water. But even on this mild spring day, she knew the water would be too cold. It didn’t matter – Samantha was just happy to be out of the house and out of that stupid corset. This part of the stream was where she came every day, and where no one from her family ever bothered her.
“Hold it right there.” Samantha looked up and saw Eli Fabre standing on the other side of the stream. His pistol was pointed straight at her, concealing his blue eyes and his blond curls. “You’re trespassing on Fabre family property.” Samantha stood up. “I think you’ll find that since the stream marks the division, the stream officially belongs to no one.” “I think if you check the deed the dotted line runs right down the center of the stream, thereby making one half mine and one half yours.
You, Miss Weston, are on my half.” Samantha laughed. “So what are you going to do, Mr. Fabre? Shoot me?” Eli cocked his pistol. “You know, I just might.” Samantha put her bare feet in cold water and began to cross the stream. “Well, I can foresee a number of problems with that.” “Stay where you are, Miss Weston. Or I’ll shoot you.” Samantha ignored him and kept walking. “One, my daddy will kill you. Two, when my daddy kills you, your daddy will try and kill my daddy. Three, if I’m dead, then there’s no one to inherit my plantation.
And four,” Samantha swiftly pulled her pistol from her cleavage, “you can’t kill me if I kill you first.” Eli let down his pistol and bowed.
“Touché, Miss Weston. Touché.” They stood awkwardly, knowing what they were meant to do, but unsure who should initiate it. After several excruciating seconds, Samantha leaned in to kiss him. She missed his mouth, and kissed his nose instead.
“You’re late,” she said, blushing.
They sat on a fallen tree at the edge of the river.
“I’m sorry. But you’ll never guess what happened? Father took me to the auction!” “A slave auction?” 10 “Obviously. What other kind of auction happens around here? Your father was there, too.” This came as a surprise, but she did not say so. As far as she knew, her father wanted to replace slave labor with the industrialized methods used up north. Why was he buying more slaves?
Eli continued. “One of the ones Father bought has the biggest hands I’ve ever seen on any man, which will be good for some of the hard labor Father needs doing. But a man that big might have a big attitude, so we’ll just have to keep an eye on him. And then we got a young thing who’ll probably have a baby in a month or so.” “Two for the price of one,” she said, absentmindedly. It’s what her grandfather always used to say when a slave was pregnant.
“Nah, we’ll probably sell the baby on. Father’s had enough with black babies running around the place. He says at his age he only wants the ones that can be put to work. Then there’s two your father bought. A husband and wife, but he isn’t going to have them right away.” “Why not?” Eli sat up straighter, pleased – it seemed – that he had something to teach her. “I think the wife is sick or something. Actually, I don’t know why your father bothered with her. He could have just had the husband and left it at that. If you ask me, he’s just asking for trouble.” “What do you mean?” “Well, the slave will know that your father is soft and that is the worst thing in the world a slave could think about its master, especially this one. I could see he had an independent streak. Father tried to talk him out of it, but he wouldn’t listen. It’ll cost him one way or another.” “You talk like you’re an expert on this stuff.” “I’ve got to be if I’m going to run my plantation.” “Our plantation.” Eli gave her a gentle nudge. “You know a woman can’t own property.” “And you know you wouldn’t have the prospect of a plantation if you don’t have mine.” Eli cleared his throat and shifted on the log. “So, what’s been happening in the world of Samantha Weston today?” “My dress fitting,” she said. “It didn’t go so well.” “No?” Samantha told him about her mother and the small amount of food she was now allowed.
“Well, I’m just going to have to start bringing you some cornbread. I can’t have you looking like you’re ripe for the picking.” “It’s not funny, Eli. You’ve got to talk to Father soon.” 11 “Don’t you worry, I’ve got it all planned.” Samantha perked up. “You do?” “I’ve just got to get him at the right time,” said Eli.
So he doesn’t have a plan, Samantha thought.
“I was hoping I could talk to him at the cotillion actually,” said Eli.
“He’ll be looking at all those suitors who’ve come from Lord knows where, and that’s when I’ll present myself. It’s an offer he can’t refuse – keeping his daughter and his plantation.” Samantha wasn’t so sure, but didn’t say. She didn’t know what to do, either.
“Oh, I almost forgot!” She opened her saddlebag and pulled out a slim, rectangular box made of smooth wood.
“Here,” she said, handing it to Eli. “Happy Birthday.” Eli smiled. “You remembered.” “Of course.” Eli pushed the lid off the box. Inside, resting on folds of deep red satin, was a Bowie knife. Samantha watched him wrap his hand around the wooden handle and pull the hold off the blade.
“Well, my, Samantha,” he said. “It’s a beauty.” The steel blade was almost a foot long. He tapped the tip of the clip point.
“Ow!” he said, as blood oozed from his fingertip.
“It’s sharp,” she said.
“I can see that.” “You like it?” Eli put his bleeding finger in his mouth “I sure do.” “Look,” she said, “the handle is inscribed.” Eli took his finger out of his mouth and held the knife flat over his palms. An oval copper plate shone against the wood.
He read: “To Elijah Fabre, With Love from Samantha Weston, 1861.”
12 Chapter 3
Annie ran barefoot across the highway, darting in and out of cars. Lights blazed and horns blared. Beyond the highway, her father stood in front of their house in Virginia.
“Dad!” she yelled.
He held out his arms to embrace her. As she took a step towards him, an explosion ripped through the air. She waved her hands to clear the smoke and there it was: the Virginia State Police car, set against her house as it burned to the ground.
“No!” yelled Annie, jolting upright as she woke from her dream.
Sweat dripped down her back as the stained wallpaper surrounding her came into focus. Outside, icy rain tapped angrily at the window as if wanting to be let in. Footsteps came slowly up the stairs.
He’s here, she thought. We’re dead.
She thought about screaming, but if he’d found them, there was no point fighting it. She was tired of running.