Fiction

Yes, Massa

By: William B. Turner

christopher-sardegna-1733-unsplash

“Junior!” he bellowed.
“Where did that boy get to now?” Willard wondered to himself. He was an irascible, but not unusually cruel for the times, man who was proud of what he had achieved, growing the farm he had inherited from his father, one of the first English settlers in the Carolina low country, into a full fledged plantation, with too many acres of rice under cultivation and too many slaves to be a mere farm any more.
“That boy” was Willard’s oldest son, whom everyone referred to as Junior. Like many fathers, Willard hoped to pass his plantation on to Junior at his death and he worried that Junior seemed insufficiently grateful and interested in the prospect of taking over the plantation.
“Junior!” Willard yelled.
“Yes, father,” came the reply.
“Where are you, son?”
“Down here,” Junior replied, from the vicinity of the cabins.
“What are you doing down there, son? There’s work to do.”
Willard found disturbing the amount of time Junior spent in the slave cabins, where his childhood friend, Omar, a slave, lived. Omar was born two days before Junior. No one was sure how Omar survived, since Willard forced his mother to feed Junior instead, giving Omar anything that was left. But Omar’s mother was smarter than Willard, which Willard could not recognize, so she regularly brought Omar up to the big house with her, even though Willard told her not to. She knew she had something Willard needed, so he wouldn’t punish her too harshly as long as she kept feeding Junior. Also the man who thought he was Omar’s father was adept, as most slaves were, at finding extra food and various other ways to survive, so he helped keep Omar alive. Only as they grew older did the strong physical resemblance between Junior and Omar become obvious and Omar’s paternity become an open secret no one dared mention. Suffering early death from over work was a common fate for the slaves on Carolina rice plantations, so no one was terribly surprised when Willard worked Omar’s mother to death when Omar was about eight years old. But the slaves took care of their own, so Omar missed his mother terribly, but he survived.
“I gave you a job to do, son,” Willard said. “Is it done?”
“Yes, father,” replied Junior
“Good, let me give you something else to do. What is Omar up to? How many times have I told you not to spend time with that boy?”
“Omar is down working on the dikes. That’s all he has to do today.”
So Junior and Omar were literally bosom buddies from birth. As they got older, Willard warned his wife to prevent them from continuing their friendship, but she was soft in that way women tend to be and let Junior have his way. Willard banished Omar from the big house on pain of automatic whipping for anyone who did not immediately remove him if he got inside somehow, but Junior was a bright, energetic boy who quickly figured out where to find Omar and so went down to the slave cabins to play with him.
They were now 16 years old. Junior had long since become adept at helping Omar with his chores in order to grow Omar in his father’s estimation for the purpose of reducing the chances that Omar would suffer whipping or sale to another owner.
Willard was aware that Junior spent more time with Omar than he liked, but he did not know that Junior was in the habit of spending the night, or much of it, sleeping in Omar’s bed in the cabins. This had started as a lark when they were little boys. Junior enjoyed calculating when the house was asleep and he could sneak down to the cabins, then awaken early enough to be back in his bed in the big house before anyone there woke up and noticed he was missing.
Then, one night when they were about twelve years old and exploring the peculiar new pleasures of adolescence, as boys will do, Omar had the impulse to press his growing member into Junior’s anus. Junior initially found the sensation uncomfortable and slightly painful, but he allowed Omar to persist and came to find it quite pleasurable, such that it stimulated his own member. Although neither of them really understood what had happened, they had the inchoate sense that they should keep this activity a secret between themselves, which they mostly did with Junior’s visits anyway.
Willard wasn’t stupid, but he was very focused on the constant work of managing a plantation, so it was usually easy for Junior and Omar to stay one step ahead of him. One day when they were sixteen, however, they were in the woods engaging in a private activity when they heard Willard approaching. They quickly arranged themselves to appear to be engaged in some innocuous activity, but Willard clearly had seen something that enraged him.
“Junior!” he bellowed. “Get your butt down to the house this instant.”
Junior complied, somewhat reluctantly.
Meanwhile, Willard grabbed Omar and dragged him down to the yard and called up the overseer.
“Give this boy one hundred lashes,” Willard ordered.
Junior hid. He could not bear to watch Omar get whipped.
As soon as he could that night, he went down to the cabins to check up on Omar. He found that, as usual, the slaves did a good job of taking care of him, and someone had applied salves to Omar’s wounds from the whipping he had endured that afternoon.
“I hate this,” Junior exclaimed. “No one should ever have to have this happen! We have to leave here.”
“What?” Omar was incredulous. “If I try to run away, your daddy will sell me, after he has me whipped again.”
“We’ll run away together. We can take the small carriage. You can hide in the back. No one will think twice about seeing me driving on the road. We’ll leave late at night and be gone too far by the time Daddy figures out what happened.”
So Junior made his plan. He looked our for a night with no moon to minimize the amount of light. He knew which horse he wanted to take, Angel, who had earned her name with her gentle disposition, but was a healthy young mare who could run fast. He took some of the cash his father kept in his office in case they wanted to stay in an inn in the interior.
The most important decision was which way to go. They could go south to Spanish territory. He had heard that the Indians there were sympathetic to African slaves and might take them in. But then they’d have to get through Georgia. They could go east to Charleston and hide out in the biggest city in the region, but Willard visited Charleston periodically for business purposes, and Junior did not want to have to worry about running into him. He decided instead to go west, to the frontier, and Indian country in that direction. He had heard that the Indians there did not much care for the European settlers, but were basically hospitable people and would not shoot at anyone who did not shoot at them first.
So on the night he had chosen, Junior snuck down to the stables in the early morning and hitched Angel up to the small carriage his mother used to go visit other plantations. He drove down towards the main gate, where Omar was waiting. Omar hid in the back of the carriage and Junior drove out onto the road. He stopped to close the gate because the slave patrol might come by and they could come to the house to report anything out of the ordinary. No point in risking any early notice to Willard that anything was amiss.
Junior had traveled several times down to Charleston with his father. He had never gone up the river before, but he knew that was the direction he wanted to go in. He wasn’t sure where the river went, but he knew he wanted to get as far into the back country as he could as fast as he could. He urged Angel on at a fast trot up river.
Willard woke at his usual hour and went down to breakfast. He had begun to train Junior to take over the plantation, so he started at breakfast assigning tasks to Junior and explaining to him why he did what he did. Usually, his wife would join him at breakfast, then the children gradually as they awoke. This day, Willard had finished breakfast with no sign of Junior. Willard had no patience for lying in bed all morning, so he went to the foot of the stairs and yelled up, “Junior! Get down here.”
Hearing no sign of any response at all, he walked up the stairs to the room Junior slept in and opened the door. He went inside and looked around. He found no one.
He immediately suspected that he knew where Junior was. He strode down to the cabins, growing more furious as he walked, and stormed into the cabin where Omar usually slept. He yanked the door open and walked in, but again, found no one.
“Now, where could those boys have got to?” he wondered. He pondered his question as he walked, somewhat absently, back up to the house.
“Mother!” he called out to his wife. She was a quiet woman who had married Willard because he owned a plantation and would likely provide a mostly comfortable life for her, as such things went. She strongly disliked the business of anyone getting whipped, and very much wanted to avoid being the cause of any such event, so she consistently refused Willard’s express instruction to report any violation of any rule that might justify a whipping in Willard’s mind. She found quiet cooperation with the slaves made the demanding job of running the plantation house easier, since the slaves appreciated her relative kindness and did their best to make sure the house ran smoothly.
“Yes? she replied.
“Have you seen Junior?”
“Not this morning.”
As Willard stood in the foyer pondering the disappearance of his son and his slave, the overseer came in and said, “Angel is gone.”
“What do you mean, gone?” Willard asked.
“I mean she’s not in her stall and I’ve looked everywhere on the property but I can’t find her.”
Willard went into his office and sat down, still pondering. Anyone could easily see that Willard’s mind and Junior’s mind did not work in much the same way, so Junior’s choices would not occur quickly to Willard. As he sat there pondering, the overseer came in again.
“The small carriage is gone, too.”
“What?!!?” Willard exclaimed. Gradually, it dawned on him what had happened. Those two boys had run off with his horse and his carriage. He flew into such a rage as the realization hit him that his wife feared he would have a stroke on the spot.
“Call out the slave patrol!” Willard ordered the overseer. “Tell them that my boy and my slave have run off.” He sat and continued to ponder other steps he might take to recover his lost son and lost property.
Meanwhile, Junior and Omar continued at their fast trot up the river. They had come to a couple of small towns, both of which they continued through without stopping. Both were hungry, but they were still concerned to get as far from Willard as they could that day.
Just as the sun was setting, they came to an inn and decided to stop for the night. Junior had stayed in inns with his father before, so he knew how to conduct himself. He handed the horse and carriage off to an attendant outside and went into the building. He and Omar stood briefly inside the door before a young woman asked what she could get for them.
“I’ll need a room for the night and dinner for two, please, ma’am.”
“Do you prefer wine or beer?”
“Beer, thank you.”
Junior paid the woman, and they sat down at a table in the quiet dining room, where a few other men were eating.
They ate quietly and, having finished, asked to go to their room.
The young woman led them up the stairs and down the hall.
“We don’t allow no ladies up here. If we find you with a lady, we will throw you out,” she warned.
Junior tried not to laugh. “Thank you, ma’am. Not to worry. We’re not that kind.”
She showed them into a room, laid the key down on the table, said good night, and left.
Suddenly, Junior and Omar were alone together for the first time without the presence of Willard looming over them. They were still teen boys who lacked the emotional vocabulary to describe what they were feeling. They sat on the bed and looked at each other for a while.
“I’m so glad we’re free,” Junior finally said.
“Me, too,” Omar replied.
“I never want to see my father again,” Junior said.
“Me, either,” Omar said.
They went to bed and enjoyed their private pleasures without fear of interruption. They slept soundly and woke at cock’s crow.
They roused themselves quickly and were about to leave when they heard a knock at the door.
Junior opened it to find an old black man outside.
“I need to talk to you boys,” he said with some urgency.
Junior stepped back and let the man into the room.
“They’s slave catchers here and they’s lookin for you two. They said they were looking for a slave and a white boy, both the same age, in a carriage with a mare. The missus didn’t see you come in last night, so she told ‘em to move on. They said they wanted to search the place, but she told them they weren’t gonna and she’d shoot ‘em first. The missus don’t have no truck with no planters nor no slave catchers.”
“What do we do now?” Junior asked in alarm.
“For right now, just wait here. I put your horse out back and put a tarp over the carriage so they wouldn’t see ‘em. I’ll come back and let you know when they’re gone.” And he left.
Junior and Omar sat quietly, not having anything to say about this development. Maybe they weren’t free after all.
Some time later, the knock came again. Junior opened the door and the same man was outside. He came in.
“The slave catchers is gone. We need to get you boys out of here right quick. The road runs out pretty soon and they’ll come right back. I’ll take you down the back stairs. You can leave the carriage here and take the horse. Cross the river out back. It’s right shallow. I kin crosst it walkin’. Let’s git.”
They followed him down the hall, the opposite direction from the way they came in and down a different stairwell. They emerged in the kitchen and went out the door, finding themselves behind the building.
“Wait here.”
The old man left and came back soon with Angel. He pointed to the river a short distance away.
“You kin cross there. It’s shallow. On the other side, just keep going up river. Pretty soon, you’ll hit Indian territory. They’ll treat you nice. They ain’t like the white folk. They won’t shoot you unless you try to shoot them first.”
Junior handed him some of the money he had in his pocket.
“I can’t thank you enough.”
“Git, boys. Ride fast.”
Junior and Omar mounted the horse and rode down to the river. As the old man had predicted, it was shallow enough for them to cross easily. They climbed the far bank and continued their journey up the river. They found a road, but it ended soon, so they continued on a path they found in the woods.
They had been gradually climbing all along, so gradually that they had not noticed, but now they were more clearly beginning to go up hill. They left the last town behind and were now well into the forest with no sign of any town around. They rode for some time without seeing any humans.
Then they came upon a clearing and saw a group of young Indian men playing some sort of game. They stopped and watched for a few moments, not sure how to proceed. Junior was still a bit worried about how the Indians would receive them, but Omar was more confident that the Indians would be hospitable.
Eventually, Junior nudged the horse further into the clearing, toward the group of young men. One of them noticed Junior and Omar and called out to his friends. The Indian men surrounded Junior and Omar on their horse, chattering excitedly among themselves. They showed no sign of hostility. But neither Junior nor Omar could understand a word they said. The Indian men started walking away, but summoned Junior and Omar to follow, so they did. Soon they came to a second clearing that had a number of buildings in it.
Another European man emerged and spoke to Junior and Omar.
“Where did you boys come from?”
“Near the coast, a rice plantation.”
“You run away?”
Junior wasn’t sure how to respond. He did not know if this man would try to return Omar and him to his father.
“Who wants to know?”
The European figured out what was up.
“I’m Robert. I’m a trader. I’ve lived up here among the Indians for a long time. I have no sympathy for planters or slave owners. Neither do the Indians. You two could likely survive by yourselves in the woods for a long time, but you’ll be much better off if you settle here in the Indian village, which they’ll let you do if you behave yourselves.”
Junior was relieved.
“Yes, we ran away from my father. He had Omar here whipped 100 times, and I can’t stand that, so we left.”
“You boys hungry? Come have some food. They’ll take care of your horse.”
Junior and Omar dismounted and followed Robert into one of the buildings. Inside, they found benches made of tree trunks split and finished for seating and tables. Robert spoke to a woman, who smiled and walked away, returning quickly with earthenware bowls full of fish and vegetables. Junior and Omar sat down and ate. Junior asked Robert how they could pay for the food.
“No need, young man. Indians believe in hospitality. They won’t take any pay for the food they give you. What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Junior. This Omar. He was my father’s slave, but he and I have been friends for as long as we can remember, and I’d rather have Omar than my father’s plantation, so we ran away.”
“Well, you’re safe here. The Indians won’t help any slave catchers, if they even get up this far. Most of the planters never get this far inland. We can give you a place to sleep and you can stay here as long as you like.”
So Junior and Omar settled in, with their own hut, and began to learn the ways of the Indians, including their language. This was an unsettling experience at first for Junior, since he found that the Indians seemed to like Omar better. Not that they disliked Junior, but they clearly felt more at ease around Omar, who picked up on their customs and learned the language more quickly than did Junior. Junior genuinely loved Omar and was happy with their new life, but he was the son of a slave owner and had unavoidably internalized some of the slave society’s beliefs about the slaves, including the opinion that they must be less intelligent than the owners. So he found surprising Omar’s superior ability to master Indian culture.
But he really didn’t mind because they were free to spend most of their time together and had no concerns about Willard seeing them or yelling at them or having Omar whipped.
About a month after they arrived at the Indian town, a group of Indian men came back from the game grounds where Junior and Omar had first encountered them and took them into one of the buildings. It turned out that two European men had arrived and the Indians knew them to be slave catchers.
At the clearing, Robert again showed up to talk to the slave catchers.
“You boys might as well run along. We don’t want your kind around here.”
“We’ve heard there’s a white boy and a slave living in the village. We have legal authority to return the slave to his owner,” said one of the slave catchers.
“You don’t have legal authority to do shit up here, boy,” said Robert. “You best run along, or the Indians will kill you and no one will ever find the bodies.”
So the slave catchers turned to ride away, but as they left, the leader said, “We’ll be back. We’re going to get that slave.”
So Junior and Omar were as safe as they could be living among the Indians, without going much further west. They learned how to hunt and help out with various other tasks to contribute to the Indian society.
The Indians seemed to recognize intuitively that Junior and Omar were lovers and showed no inclination to condemn them for this fact. They gave the two of them a hut of their own to sleep in together and no one seemed to care. Junior and Omar were surprised to find that they were not the only same sex couple in the village and that all such couples enjoyed the respect of everyone else.
After Junior and Omar had been in the village for several months and both had learned a good bit of the Indian language, an elder woman came and explained to them that the Indians had a recognition ceremony for adult couples that they wanted Junior and Omar to undergo.
“We can see that you two love each other and we’re happy for you. It’s your choice, but we do prefer to recognize adult couples like you as part of our community,” the elder said.
Junior and Omar had lived long enough in a culture where their innate shame at their relationship was strong enough that they could barely recognize it, so they were taken aback by having a senior member of their new town tell them in effect that they should get married, in the closest analogy they could think of. But once they thought through the situation, they had figured out that the elder women really ran the Indian society and that ignoring or defying them was not a good idea. Also, they liked the idea of having their relationship recognized by their friends and neighbors, so they told the elder woman that they would be happy to participate in the ceremony she had proposed.
Their acquiescence unleashed a fury of happy planning among the elder women, who had always been kind and hospitable to Junior and Omar, but a bit distant. Now all the elders in the tribe took the two on as sons and pulled out all the stops to put on a multi day festival, the high point of which was a ceremony in which Junior and Omar stood before the whole town and declared their lifelong commitment to each other.
And they lived happily ever after.

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Categories: Fiction

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