And I Cried Jubilee
by Ty Netikerty
When she come to her, she come with chains on---rattling and dragging in the dirt. Unlike Cee who had come to write and listen to the wind; out in the open field where the rows stretched out for miles before her. But she, who wore chains, was traveling to find some resting place for the soul, someone to listen to her story, her complaint. Then she could lie down and pull the soil over her restless body like a blanket, and sleep. Yes, for a thousand years, she would sleep. And when she come, she come straight at her down the row where Cee was sitting in the dirt, writing in a journal. And for a second she was startled, until she saw the girl’s eyes---deep furrows. Full of words, like hers.
The girl sat down in the dirt beside her, and for a long time there was silence as if the wind was holding its breath. Both of them looked straight ahead as if in deep thought. Then the girl spoke, “he come at me. He come after me at night, after she go to sleep.”
Without looking at the transparent girl, she asked, “who comes after you?”
“He come. Masta. After I work the fields and night falls down like a weary soul. He come to my bed and stay ‘til dawn. He rustle my sheets, he rustle my soul.”
Cee could not believe her eyes or her ears. Her family had always called her the weird one—always going off to herself, and always writing and reading, and now they would have a reason to think her strange. But she knew this was real. This child, barefoot in chains, was real. And before Cee would let this soul wander any further, she would let the girl tell the troubling of her heart. And she would record it onto the page.
The sun crouched, then laid down for the night, leaving a long line of orange-red slashed at the bottom of the sky. Cee grabbed her flashlight and held the light over her paper. The evening had become cool and the figure in front of Cee became more vivid. She knew that for some reason she had been chosen to write this slave’s story.
The girl’s dress was the color of dry wheat and was unraveling at the hem. Her hair was sandy brown, and to glance at her once without thought, one would take her to be a fair white child. Her thin pale skin. But because the girl was in front of her, close enough to inhale her breath, she could see her true features under the flashlight. The soft full lips. The long distinct nose, sharp, but smooth around the edges. The fine hair, wavy at the scalp. The lime colored eyes trimmed in chestnut brown. Cee knew this girl had the blood of slaves screaming in her veins, and the genes of their masters branded in her womb. This child had a war stirring in her soul. She was mulatto.
And if nothing else hinted secrets of her heritage, the rusted chains clanking around her ankles chanted the language of the slave. The girl spoke again, “mama say,” ‘meet me here. Right here in this field.’ “Many nights roll away like a thunder cloud. She don’t come for me. She don’t come. He chain me to my bed, tear the sheets, blood is shed, blood. she come though, with the vengeance of God. She come down. Sneaking upon his back. Down-down he fall. Down to the mighty grave. And mama call upon the Almighty to save her child. For what she done will cause her strips. She say,” ‘run through the cotton. Sing a mighty hymn. They will be waiting by the river. Harriet and her mighty railroad, underground.’ “But mama don’t come, and I don’t go with Harriet. I wait as still as the fawn. Hover down in the brushes. Listen for her steps. But she don’t come. Mama don’t come to me.”
Cee asks, “did they kill your mother?”
“Nothin’ keep my mama from me, but the grave.”
“Did she kill him?”
“She get masta off me.”
“Did she kill him?”
The girl shifted. Her chains rattled. “He hurt me.”
“She killed him.” Cee looked at the girl.
“I go back to get her. Back through the brush and mud. I hunch down when men on the horses come through the tall grass. Past day and moons, I shuffle in these chains 'til they carve their names in my ankles. I go back to get my mama. But when I get to papa’s plantation, my mama’s arms stretch out like a cross. Head bowed, hands cold in a tight rage. Hanging high upon the tree. Ankles blunt like the hoofs of the hunter’s horse. He take her feet. Her eyes lookin’ past the ocean, lookin’ straight through me. He hurt me!” The girl screamed. “My mama died. The master lived. She did not kill him . . . three days later, I did!”
Cee wanted to get up and run. This was too much to hear, too much to believe, too much to write. She stared at the trembling girl. Was this real? If she reached out to touch her would her hand sink through, as if, the figure was a cloud. And yet, she was as real as Cee’s breath was suspended in the chilled air.
“I killed my papa Alexander.” The girl’s eyes filled with tears. She whispered. “I kill him . . . because he hang her.”
Cee did not understand. She knew she had to have the whole story to tell the whole truth. But how did she get the girl to calm down. To stop talking in riddles and phrases. She could not stay in this field longer than this night. Her family would be worried about her. Would the girl return the next night, or would she keep traveling? Who else had seen this spirit. A farmer working late at night. College kids having a bon fire. Drunk drivers trying to swerve to keep from hitting her, as she shuffled across the country road. Thinking her to be a fabrication of their intoxication. Or did she just walk up to the lonely writers out in the middle of fields. Cee’s mother had already told her that she would go crazy for reading too much. Had that happened?
For a long time, there was a silence. The girl looking out into the darkness that surrounded them. Cee unzipped her bag and pulled out the jacket that she had brought. She thought it might storm like the night before. Cee wrapped the jacket around her shoulders. Still steadying the light on the girl, as if she would disappear.
The girl started in phrases again, “uncle Jesse cut off his foot and ran.”
“What?” Cee was confused.
“We all belong to Master Alexander. We all run ‘cept mama.”
“Who’s uncle Jesse?” Cee questioned.
“They call him the squall chaser. The slave whose always runnin'.” The girls green eyes were piercing. “My sister Jessemae, tell you the story. She tell you about the storm.”
Cee was completely lost in the girl’s rattling; she had to retrace to the beginning. And as she was about to ask the girl who Jessemae was, and what did her uncle Jesse have to do with the murder of Alexander, she heard footsteps coming behind her. Cee felt the long dress brush the side of her arm. A cold strange tickling ran up her spine. She tried to focus her eyes, but the figure stayed blended in the dark, at a distance.
Cee wanted to flash the figure that was standing there quietly. But what would she see. Was it too terrible to make itself known in the light? She tried to ignore that a woman in a long dress had just walked up, and was standing there in the blackness. She could hear the rustling of her dress in the wind. Her voice now quivering, Cee asked the girl, “who is Jessemae?”
The girl stared out into the darkness without saying a word.
“Jessemae. Who is she?” Cee whispered.
“She help me slash Alexander’s throat. She my sister.” The girl answered without looking at Cee and still keeping her eyes fixed into the darkness.
Cee’s stomach clinched, and before she could ask another question, a tall dark woman appeared under the light. Her hair black as coal, thick and coarse. Parted down the middle. Two long braids hanging past her shoulders. Eyes deep as the night sky. Hands bloody and constantly smoothing out her wrinkled stained dress. She spoke fast, polite, and explaining:
“Hi, wasn’t that some storm we had last night? My name’s Jesse. Jessemae Alexander. You heard right. They call me Jesse after my cousin Jesse. The run away slave. Huh, they say when his mama birthed him, she was dying, because he come out tryin’ to run--feet first. And all you could hear from plantation to plantation, was the echoes of her wailings. Jesus is what they say she was screamin’ on that black rainy night. Jesus. Between the slices of lightning and growling of thunder, Jesus. And since no one could understand that she was calling on Jesus. What they called her baby was, Jesse. Huh, Jesse. Blood streamin’ down to the dirt floor like the roots of a Baobab tree. Blood and dirt mixin’ like the wind and rain of that storm. The rain, huh, tappin’ its bones on the tin roof of that little wafer-like stall. They say when the lightning stopped slashing, and the wind stopped singing, her breathing stopped also. She left with that squall that night. When Jesse got old enough to know he didn’t have no mama, he took an ax, cut off his ankle along with the chain, and ran dragging that bloody stump through the woods. Say he was tryin’ to find the storm that took his mama. Don’t know if the slave chasers caught him. Don’t know. Huh. Wasn’t that some storm we had last night?”
And with that said, she looked down at the slave girl and smiled for a long time. Then as she came, she went--out into the darkness. Her dress again brushing against Cee’s arm. Then there was nothing, but the girl with the green eyes looking at Cee, as if waiting for a reaction. But Cee could not say anything, just steady the light. She was afraid now, but she couldn’t show it. The more the riddles unfolded, the more Cee had to know. She still didn’t understand what Jesse had to do with Alexander. Did Alexander own Jesse also?
“They stand, the three: Sapphire 20; Lucy, my mama ,15; and their sister El, 10. They stand on the auction block like three blind mice, after they master died. Then Masta Alexander bid upon two heads: Lucy and El ,and won. Sapphire he say too old, so Master Wade claimed her and took her home. She had seven sons, then killed Wade, and left the seven behind, everyone.”
Cee scribbled it down on her paper the best she could. She questioned, “what happened to Lucy your mother, and El her sister?”
Alexander rape El, my auntie. She have Jesse at the age of 11. He come feet first. She die that night. Mama raise him until he 10, then he cut off his foot and ran.
“Oh my God!” Cee said, then covered her mouth with her free hand. The flashlight swerved and Cee focused it back on the girl.
Mama grieve for days. He then, rape my mama. Months later, she have a baby and name it Jessemae, after Jesse. Then when she thirty and one, she have me. I look just like my papa.
“But why did you and Jessemae kill Alexander?”
“I work the fields, for my papa. I work 'til my hands keep the burning sun in them for days. He marry a lady when I turn 12; but he try and get me every night when she go to sleep. Then one night he grabbed me from behind the door. He tear my clothes. He tear my soul. Blood is shed. Then mama come like a roaring lion. She say I’m too young. I’m his blood. Down she come upon his back, with a hoe from the field. He grab her. She scream for me to run with Harriet!”
“What did he do to her?” Cee found herself caught in a whirlwind of curiosity.
“Slaves come runnin’ to see what happened. Mrs. Alexander come tearin’ from her sleep. They all stand ‘round watchin’ mama be dragged through the house to the yard. To the barn. To the tree.”
“I thought she hit him with a hoe?”
“She only slash the side of his arm, when he bring it up to dodge death. Then he grab her by the throat and drag her.”
“Why the barn?”
“Why to the barn?”
“To blunt her feets like the hoofs of the gallopin’ horse. The slave hunter’s horse.”
“But why?” Cee questioned. Her stomach felt weak. “Why would he cut off her feet and . . . . hang her also?”
“Cause my mama don’t make no sound. She don’t scream. She don’t plead for mercy. No tears stream from her eyes. She just stare at him and sings:”
‘Tis the soul’s window that can’t be broke.
“Then Jessemae, my sister, say papa get mad and drag mama to the yard. A trail of blood followed them. Say Mrs. Alexander was pleadin’ for him to stop. But he slap her and threaten her the same deed. For she was like a slave also.”
“He hang her?”
“Cause Jessemae try and stop him. He tear her skin with the whip. Twenty and five, slashes upon her back.”
Cee scribbled more notes down onto her pad. Her hands were getting cold, and as she was about to ask the girl more questions, a car slowed down from the country road. She thought it might be her brother looking for her. She knew that she would definitely be punished for not making her curfew. The constant hacking of hurtful words was becoming unbearable. And when she thought about the repercussions of what lay ahead for her after explaining about the slave girl and everything, she switched the flashlight off and lay flat on the ground. The car slowed, then stopped.
“Cee, you out here! Her brother yelled from the car. Mama said get your tail home now! Cee, you out here! He repeated that warning three more times then left.
Cee had been holding her breath, while he shouted. She was almost sure that he had not seen her. When she looked in front of her, she saw nothing but blackness. Her hand fumbled around in the dirt trying to find the flashlight that had slipped out of her hand when she made a quick dash to the ground. “Where is it,” she said. A cold breeze slipped under her jacket. She shivered. “Are you still there? Cee asked. “Are you. . .”
“I’m here.” The girl answered.
Cee felt a tap on her shoulder. Someone opened her hand and placed the flashlight in it. The hand was large and Cee felt as if her hand would sink into the palm if she did not remove it. She screamed, then switched the flashlight on. “Who. Who are you?”
The man towered over Cee like an old Oak. All she could see was his faded pants and one foot with a chain hanging around it. The other, a stump. Cee took the flashlight and shone it up into the tall figures face. Immediately he covered his eyes. And with a heavy mudded voice, he said, “turn that light off girl.”
His voice alone, made Cee’s knees feel as if there were a million tiny worms squiggling around in them.
“Don’t say nothin’,” the girl warned. “His spirit is angry. He searchin’ for El, his mama.”
“He never found her?” Cee questioned.
“He see her every squall, but he never see her face. He lookin’ for her eyes. To see them. Then he can rest.”
“Why her eyes?”
“Eyes are the window of the soul.” Said the girl. “If he see her soul, he sees his. A river of stories. His roots. Do not say anythin’ to him, he will soon move on, and seek after her.”
The man sat down next to Cee. “You seen my mama?”
Cee looked at the figure. She had never been this frightened before. She did not answer.
He spoke again. This time with great frustration. The ground began to shake. “Have you seen my mama!”
The girl spoke. “Uncle Jesse, she not here. Your mama not here.” The girl walked up to him and hugged him. “She’s not here, dear soul, she’s not here.”
The giant slave stood up and walked into the night. No footsteps were heard. Nothing.
Cee sat in a heap, shaking. She had to get up and leave. This was getting out of hand, and she was seriously thinking that, maybe, this was just a figment of her imagination. Maybe she had finally lost her mind. Maybe all the books she had read were coming to life, cursing her because she loved them. Their sweet old peculiar smells. Their delicate skin between two covers. Their mystery and wisdom, and lyrical words. Either way, she had to get away from this situation, but the seduction was pulling her deeper into the lives of these apparitions. And although she was terrified, in some ways, her hunger to know the whole story dampened the burning fear that lay in the pit of her belly, and beckoned her on. “I have to leave soon,” Cee said.
“Don’t you want to meet my auntie?” The girl questioned.
Before Cee could answer, the girl stood up on her feet. Chanting words in African. Dancing, she twirled, her ankles never getting tangled in the chains. Arms and body embracing the wind. The wind picking up speed as the girl twirled faster. Her eyes, clear, green, glittering when the small light caught them. Rain fell in sheets, hitting puddles in the mud. Dancing. Everything dancing. The wind caught Cee’s writing pad and carried it up high to an invisible height. Cee felt her feet become light. She joined in the chanting and dancing. Losing herself, inch by inch. Releasing the fear and hurt and uncertainty of this episode, and the tomorrow she would face.
She let it all melt into the rain. Then up, she went into the air, suspended in perfect liberty. And there was peace. And there stood Sapphire, looking straight at her---her sister’s Lucy and El by her side. And all of the questions Cee had wanted to ask, dissolved. She could see what Jesse had been searching for--knowing. And the assurance that no matter how troubling life became, or whether one had chains tied to their ankles, or to their mind; there was always. . . knowing. Cee knew that no matter if she stayed suspended in this glory forever, or woke up in her bed from a dream, or in a field with her notes splayed out around her, mangled and muddy. She just knew. She knew. Liberty. And that sometimes it comes when one is most vulnerable, and alone---but what heights one can obtain because they rode the squall.