Chapter One

George stepped aside for one of the ladies with immense hoop skirts at the front door. He had brought the cook a bushel of potatoes from the cool earth in the space below the house, and was on his way back to work. That was three days ago.

Today’s was first daylight George had seen since then. Alone in the dark confines of his cabin, he writhed in pain far from the dancing eyes of guests who had sighed so deeply when he passed. He just about gave the ladies a faintin' spell, his master had told him, right before he called for Little Jack.

George rested on his stomach for those three days, his red-back bare and crisscrossed with long lines of drawing salve thick and black as tar. He still wore the blood-encrusted overalls that had been stripped down to the waist, the ones with a strap long ago busted open by the mass of muscles that made this soft-spoken slave the most intimidating presence on The Houmas land, save for Little Jack.

Whereas George's overalls rose to mid-shin, Little Jack's were cuffed, but that isn't why they called him Little Jack. He got his name from the comparison drawn between the size of his coiled whip and his own stature. When Little Jack was mounted on Fire Ball, his nearly black, gangly old horse, the coil reached from the saddle horn halfway up Fire Ball's neck, then up to Little Jack's waist and down to his knee. How it appeared in Jack's hands when he stood five paces behind a naked black back, no one stuck around to see.

Little Jack had a fine way of popping that old whip.

He had long ago cut off its tattered tail and unbraided the last few inches of the thick length. So, when George returned to his cabin after his beating and lay on his moss mattress in the corner of the only room in the dwelling, and his wife returned from the big house and the children from the fields, they rushed to George's side to observe the yawning tears from the part of a whip never intended to touch man nor animal's back, its thick fringe now more a cat-o-nine-tails.

Massa had often told Little Jack that such brutality was unwarranted, but Little Jack believed the old white man just wanted others to believe he was a kind old Southern gentleman, leaving Nigger Jack to carry on his tortures in the shadows.

Living in the shadows. A common enough place, where George's natural male instincts battled with his core instinct for survival.

When we was down by the crick, and I told my Liddy I be plannin' on askin' Massa if'n we could jump the broom…Massa, he a good man. George tried to hold on to nice memories while he lay face down on the rough-hewn cotton sheet.

But that day down by the creek was long before his promised virgin was forced to give herself to Massa, and the couple's first-born son came out fair-haired. How could Lyddy stand it? How could she still be so gentle? It was Lyddy's own fine line that made it so. Knowing that what she did with that child and how she comforted George in his rage, and how determined she was to not be broken, it all helped him find his sanity, again. And she managed it all without losing her privileges at the big house. But she never told George about the other price she paid for those privileges. Maybe George knew all along, those days his wife came back to their cabin so quiet. George let her be, that fine line sometimes a circle around their lives, his family. Inside was warm and safe. Outside was to deal with Little Jack and face his massa.

Not crossing lines was a lesson learned early in George's life. He had seen his father's scars. Oko had tested that line too many times, and George hadn't seen him since he stood naked but tall on a slave block, and a man called him a prime buck who, though he bore the scars of an unruly nigger, had come to know his place. A fine buck. Fine, fine buck.

George's parents had raised him and three siblings, though there had once been five, all living together in one of the older cabins with divided rooms. George's mother still lived in the marital cabin, still put in a hard day's work.

"G'mornin', George." That's what he heard when he stepped out his front door each morning. "Mornin' JoJo, mornin' Rampa, mornin' Wi'am," his friends' African names long ago replaced with more white sounding ones. But his mornings started bright and fresh and clean anyway, no matter the old names he no longer remembered.

Where it be I stand? George reflected on the question every morning, especially on Sundays. Locked here b'twix bein' a man and bein' a thing, like a mule or a cart or a shovel. How I teach my sons how to be men. Am I a man if'n my wife ain' my own, all my own. How I teach my fam'ly and set a 'xample for my friends and neighbors when I cain' be a man myself. How could that be? What did God think about such goings on?

George had heard the stories of the old African and Jamaican rituals, but nearly all were long gone. Now, mostly all they knew was a Christian god. Massa even give a free man of color, one they call Preacher, a silver dollar Sunday when he come 'round and spill out his song and teachin' and stories, sometimes wit' a finger pointed to the sky. Why did he do that?

Nobody knew this morning would end any differently from the day before, or the day before that. The rifle shot came from the direction of Massa’s house.