Isobel Terry

A suspension of silence 


They part in Millennium Square. A holding of hands. They look into each other faces. A smile. At the end of a leisurely lunchtime appointment a story seeps into their clasp. Of cellular memory.  A lineage of connection. It rises up through their skin slipping down the lines of our palms touching. Vapours of time spill out on to stone slabs. A dampening. Then a parting of hands. One walks away. They wave goodbye She disappears around the corner. The other gathers the lines of story before they dry.

I am ordered to come to her drawing room. I knock. I walk through the door. She sits at her pianoforte tinkling a hymn. The tune I recognize yet cannot recall. The wooden floor boards creak under my feet. A smell of polish.  Bees wax and lavender on mahogany. She continues playing. Wooden blinds cover the large sash windows. The air is cool. She plays in a comfortable gloom. I glance out over the veranda to the fields beyond.. A darkening sky. The rains are coming.

The tune stops. I look towards her. Her magnolia frock cascades around the stool; its hem casts a semi circle on the rug. My eyes rest on the back of her neck. A place of ivory tenderness.  Her hair is pinned up. When she rides her horses her curls hang loose entangled by the wind. I have a sudden memory. It is of my real name. My secret. It is of my grandmother. And in a place of freedom I will use it, after all.

 ‘I have a question for you, Harriet’ she speaks into her score.   

 ‘Yes ma’am’

She turns to face me. She dabs at her narrow pink lips with a lace handkerchief. I lower my gaze. She hands me the bible and says

 ‘Kiss this holy book and swear before God that you will tell me the truth.’

I take the oath she requires knowing what she is to ask. Today I heard my master and mistress quarrel. I rejoiced in the storm that enraged them. In its mist I felt a strange kind of safety.

‘Now sit here this stool, look me directly in the eye and tell me all that has passed between you and your master.’

She points to a small chair in the centre of the room. I sit down and pull my cloth skirt over my bare knees. She remains on the piano stool. Her pale hands lie clasped together on her lap. Her thumbs circle around each other in a clockwise direction. My heart beats faster. Sweat collects under the soles of my feet.  Saliva drains down my throat. I lift my tongue to speak. I know it will not rise. It lies heavy and dry behind my lower front teeth. Fiercely she stares at me. I am sure her blue eyes see right through to my soul.

A suspension of silence I take the bible from between her calloused hands and place it beside me I remember teaching her to read from this bible. She was quick to learn. We had to be careful not to get caught I know she will not speak. I look at her. I have known her face since we were children.  My wet nurse was her mother.  We suckled at the same breast. We played together. She found out her predicament when she was six years old. She became a slave when she was twelve. My father died shortly after. I am the only child. Uncle arranged my marriage for me when I was nineteen so that I could inherit the plantation.

I have been sworn to silence. A fear of his whip, even death, should I speak. The back of my thighs press into the edge of the chair. I remember the day it began. It was a Friday shortly after their wedding. He smells me in his nostrils. A yearning in his groin for my brown flesh.  He whispers in my ear foul words. Words that if spoken out loud would contaminate the air. I tremble. I feel his lips wet on the .back of my neck. He draws me into his room. I know the inevitability of my fate. I am property. From then on he orders me to work in the house. 

I am resting in my drawing room. I hear footsteps, the sound of his boots on the hallway floor. Her muffled voice. His bedroom door closes. I hear a .muted cry through the crack of the door left ajar. A burning sensation engulfs my intestines.  A poisoning of my blood. A shrinking of my lungs. A holding of my breath. A stiff neck. A taste of bitterness in my mouth. I can barely tolerate it .The next morning I see her. I see her heart in the hallway. It has shrivelled between her lungs. Her eyes are glazed over. Laughter has flown from her. I am numbed to her misery. This is the beginning. Of an ever deepening chasm. One I am powerless to cross. I cannot bear to hear her words. And she will not tell me.

‘You can go, I have no wish to know. She mutters with a stern tone. returning to her score.

‘Yes ma’am’.

I hear her footsteps leave the room. My fingers fumble on the piano keys. She shuts the door firmly.

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