Freedom spat a gob full of chewed tobacco onto the floor of his cabin and picked up the wood he had been whittling. He was old. Ninety five years had taken its toll on his jaundiced carcass but he could still smile and look back over his life. He would never leave the plantation now. Everyone he had ever known had died working the cotton fields or been sold on. His own hands had clumsily laboured for years until his wood working skills had been discovered. Then he had been put to work, carpentering. Up at the house, he had fixed things in the kitchen and then progressed to honing one of the most beautiful, hand crafted cribs Mrs Jenner had ever seen. The woman, old enough to be his mother, had been cook back then and had taken him under her wing when he had been sold away from his mother and sisters. She beamed and poured out extra rations for him from the pot. She felt it in her bones that he could become a favourite of the master.
Freedom sensed his work was respected even if he was not. A sideboard came next and two easy chairs for the verandah, for the master and his missis. Then a swing seat for the children. How they had hollered and swung their days away on that old thing. He grinned and finished carving out a face on the wood. Then a tear stung his eye as he pictured his own beautiful boy being whipped for running to them and joining in the fun.
‘But he's only a boy, massa. He don't know any better. Whip me instead’, he begged.
‘Stand aside, he needs a lesson early on, so's he don't take advantage’.
He would never forget the sound of the high pitched screams from Jacob. He sounded like a girl as he took his punishment, for which Freedom felt ashamed but nowhere near as much as at himself. A grown man, standing by while his boy took ten lashes. Jacob never ventured near the white kids again and went inward for a lifetime. Then he had taken to running. Swamps hindered his progress and dogs brought him to his knees. Dragged to the lashing post time after time with more blood spilled as an example to them all.
He scratched the back of his neck killing the lice and took an unsteady sip of cool water. It was hot outside with little breeze. He wiped the sweat dripping off his nose and began to carve the body. When it was announced that they could leave after the Confederates lost the war, a mass exodus of field hands had abandoned the plantation. He had stayed. At ninety he had not thought to see five more years.
Judie visited him every day since. The oldest negro ever to have survived her father's regime, seemed like a miracle to her. Judie, the youngest of her father's children, had outlived them all and taken over. Her years had been a whole lot kinder. Freedom heard the rustle of her skirts as she entered the cabin. He made no eye contact carrying on with his project. He liked her visits enjoying the feeling of someone caring for him. Judie was a stout woman now, no longer the stripling who had blacked her sisters eyes in viscious cat fights. Her lilac perfume did not quite mask her tendency to sweat in the intense Southern heat but as she sashayed into the cabin, he remembered her being the belle of many a plantation ball.
‘Morning Harvey......I've brought you some corn bread from the kitchen and jug of coffee. What's that your making?’
‘Smells real good, Miss Judie. I ain't too sure, but I see something taking shape.....I surely do’. He rocked back and forth and a deep throated chuckle at his handywork momentarily stripped the years away.
She poured him a cup of coffee and one for herself and sat on the stool by the door, to make the most of any breeze which might blow her way. She loved these peaceful minutes spent each day in his company.
After a while, she said, ‘Reminds me of the dolls you used to carve for me and my sisters. How we fought over them. Nellie still loves them. She's the brightest of all our grandchildren.’
She drained her coffee cup and glanced outside. Beyond the row of cabins, acres of sparsely planted cotton looked a pathetic sight. In its hey day the plantation had boasted the most cotton crop in the whole of Alabama. Her grandfather had owned scores more slaves than any other plantation owner. Now, pickers were hired from her neighbours or white trash worked the fields. She was poor but still managed to keep the house going and her last remaining slaves alive. She felt a stubborn pride in being able to do so.
‘Well, I will leave you to your creation then, Harvey’. The old man thanked her for the coffee and vituals and got on with the task in hand. A memory of children gathered around him, as he wailed on the porch. The master had tried everything to help save his dying wife. His own physician had been brought in and he had even moved Tabitha from the cabin up to the house, to be attended to. Something to do with pleurisy getting out of control, they said, but he knew she had died of a broken heart when Jacob had taken his last beating. Now his gnarled hands chipped bigger pieces out of the wood, indicating a waist and thighs and soon he was on the legs.
Freedom tried hard to think. Miss Judie and everyone he knew called him Harvey and now he struggled to reason why. A whispering at the back of his mind and he had it. ‘Harvey, carvey’, they had sung in unison. His nick name. He liked it. Made him feel warm and wanted inside but it wasn't his name. He felt pleased that he had chosen a big enough piece of wood for his carving. The legs were muscle bound like the arms and shoulders. He needed Jacob to look a strong warrior like the Malinke stock he came from. Like the man he would have been in another life.
Freedom lay the finished piece across his lap and closed his eyes. As soon as the heat of the day died away, he would leave the cabin and take a slow walk to the slave cemetary, where his boy was buried.Tabitha would be pleased with what he was about to do and rest more easy. After a short nap, he buffed up the carving using his shirtsleeve and took a hammer and some long nails. The row was quiet as he shuffled along.
He passed the first ten rows of graves. Most names were familiar to him. Men and women who had served the masters well over generations. He arrived at the spot where they had buried his boy. Just a cross to mark the place with his name scratched out. Freedom had not been allowed to carve his name because Jacob had been a runner, a constant thorn in the master's side. Tabitha was a long way up the row.
Freedom got down on his hands and knees and mouthed a short prayer. Next, he took the carving and hammered it to the cross. He sighed and felt weary after the effort of the day. Noone would object to this embellishment of his son's grave. Noone would know how good he felt, to have done something at long last for his son. He sat until it grew dark, holding onto his crooked legs for support. His mother had told him before she left his life for good, on the back of a slavers wagon, to remember who he was and where he had come from.
‘Don't you ever forget, son. You are Freedom.’He rocked back and forth knowing that it was this that had kept him alive all these years. The carving represented not only his son but his tribe. His warrior tribe from Africa. His last message on this earth would be his son's name. His name. He had been tempted to make one last stand against the life he had been born into, and carve it on the bottom, for all to see but it no longer mattered who knew. So he had turned the figure over and carved it on the back instead. It read Jacob Freedom. That was his name, the name his mother had given him. The name he always felt inside.
Photo by Willi Heidelbach on Pixabay