Sailing to Freedom
By Martha Bennett Stiles
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2012 Martha Bennett Stiles
All rights reserved.
A Sudden Journey
Dr. Spofford delivered me, Raymond Justin Ingle, Jr., into the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, the very day that the Spanish slave ship Amistad wound up at Long Island in August of 1839. So if you've got two hands and a foot, you can calculate that I turned twelve last summer—and twelve is plenty old enough to go to sea. This May, Father's clipper ship, the Black Skimmer, was booked to take a shipload of South Carolina cotton to Liverpool, England. Father'd been home less than three weeks when he had to leave Mam and me again. One more time, I begged him to let me sail with him.
Allie, the black-and-white capuchin monkey who'd ridden Father's shoulder right into the house this homecoming, stared down at me with what I took for sympathy, but Father laughed. "Not till the top of your head reaches the bottom of the mantelpiece, Ray." He laughed again when I pushed my fingers upward through my hair and ran to the fireplace. Mam followed close.
Not a hair touched wood. Mam looked glad.
In the short time Father'd been home, I'd developed a liking for Allie, but now I glared at her. No more full-grown than I, but she was a veteran sailor. "I don't want to be tall!" I cried. "Tall people bump their stupid heads!" Then I swallowed. Father's the tallest one in his family, taller than both his brothers.
Mam's firm ambition is to teach me not to blurt things without thinking. I waited for the ceiling to fall on me—or at least the mantelpiece. Father just said, "One of these days, Ray, you'll be able to lift that mantel right off its supports with that hard head of yours. Time enough to talk about climbing the rigging."
So much for Mam telling me "it's not how tall you are; it's how tall you act."
Singing "The Sailor's Alphabet" is how Mam taught me my letters. Father taught me to tie shoelaces and masthead knots the same week. Then he sailed for Manila. I swore someday I'd sail with him.
"Dr. Spofford says sea air makes you grow."
Father ruffled my hair, which you cannot do to anybody near as tall as you are, and which I hate. "Time makes you grow," he said. "Cheer up, Ray. Look at your feet. Remember when ol' Matt was a pup, how funny his big feet looked under that scrawny body? And everybody said, 'He'll surely be a big dog; see his big feet'?"
Matthew G. Perry was a stray pup our minister harbored, scrawny because he had worms. With the whole Belleville Church congregation slipping him treats, he got big as a billy goat soon enough. I don't have worms the way Matt did, but I'm skinny and short anyway.
But yes, big feet. Which Father seems to think is a hopeful sign.
Then Father got serious. "Son, the sailor who sold me this monkey loved her, and I hope you will too." Out of the side of my eye, I saw Mam stiffen, so I wasn't the only one surprised.
"She needs a lot of understanding," Father went on. Mam pursed her lips. I started being careful to look only at Father and his little monkey. "First she was taken from her mother." Allie's black eyes got so big, anybody would've thought she understood Father's words. "Then whoever committed that crime sold her to a sailor. Now that sailor's father's died, and the sailor has to quit the sea and run the farm for his mother—and his mother won't let a monkey in her house." Father gave Mam his warmest smile. Obviously she'd let that monkey in her house. But he didn't seem to have warned her he was going to leave Allie with me! My arms and legs tingled.
Father's always given me good-bye presents, as if a present could make up for being left behind. Never anything like Allie, though. I could hardly nerve myself to sneak a look at Mam, but when I did, my chest filled up so hard it hurt my backbone. Mam can never say no to Father when he's about to sail. Allie was mine.
In my pocket I had a half-eaten apple. I held it up to her. She looked at me as carefully as she looked at the apple, then snatched it as if she feared I'd change my mind.
"Good thinking," said Father as Allie chewed in his ear. "I knew I was leaving her in good hands."
I leaned my head sideways so Father could set Allie on my shoulder. She felt warm against my neck. Her fur had an outdoors smell, kind of like my friend Tom Chase's cat, which spends every night hunting. Her small hand holding tight to a hank of my hair felt as if she trusted me, a good feeling. And now that she was going to have to stay in Newburyport too, I didn't feel jealous of her anymore.
In school, we're reminded every May 10 that it's the anniversary of going to war with the Barbary pirates. Nobody's ever going to have to remind me that May 10 is the anniversary of when I got Allie.
Nice as keeping Allie was, in the weeks after Father left, I couldn't help complaining. Having Allie and sailing with Father would've been a whole lot nicer.
Ever since Dr. Spofford told Mam I'm the only child she's ever going to have, Mam's been even surer than Father that I'm too short for sea duty. "What am I always telling you when you fuss?" she demanded.
"Be-as-patient-as-the-Amistaders," we recited in unison. Nearly three years passed after those men took over their captors' ship before they got back to Africa.
"Mam's big on recommending patience," I groused to Allie. "Like when we had to stand on the dock with her, watching the Black Skimmer disappear. 'Patience, patience,' she said. Remember?"
Patience, Mam says when the gingerbread in the oven smells so good it's surely got to be ready to eat, whatever the cookbook says.
Patience, she says when that lunk Clam Hopkins calls me Shrimp. (True, if I don't patiently wait to punch him till school's out, I get caned.)
Patience, she says when our minister's wife pinches my cheek and urges me to be a Ray of sunshine, a Ray of hope. Mostly I'm proud to be Raymond Justin Ingle, Jr., but some aching-cheek Sundays, I secretly wish I were Uncle Thad's namesake instead of Father's.
"If you ever get a chance," I instructed Allie, "I'd like you to bite that hand reaching for my cheek." But no taking a monkey to church was another thing Mam stayed firm about, Sunday after Sunday.
Mam was firm, and Allie and I had to be patient, when come June, Mam got a letter from her sister in Boston. "Doctor says this baby I'm carrying is twins!" Aunt Lou wrote. "Says I must lie abed till they come because—" There Mam stopped reading aloud, and for a moment all I heard was Great-grandfather's tall clock ticking. Then, "Wash your face and pack, Ray." Mam was halfway across the parlor, headed for the stairs.
"Are we going to Boston?"
"I'm going to Boston. You're going to your uncle's."
"Oh no," I moaned. "There's got to be somewhere else I could go!"
"You, yes," Mam answered over her shoulder. "You and Allie?"
Slowly Allie and I followed Mam upstairs. I have two uncles, but only one lives in Newburyport, so I knew which uncle Mam meant. Some summer vacation. Old skinny-as-a-garter-snake Uncle Slye, such a miser he's stingy even with himself, would be worse than school.
I checked my face in my glass. Father's cowlick; Mam's brown hair and eyes; a nose beginning to lengthen, I think; one small forehead scar; one streak. I spat on my shirttail, swiped at the streak. "Father has two older brothers," I told Allie as I packed. "Uncle Thad lives on the Newburyport Beauty, his own schooner. He's probably somewhere between Salem and Rockport right now. Uncle Slye lives just a few blocks downhill from here at Ingle's, his grocery store.
"Uncle Thad has three daughters in Rockport. When I tell you I'd rather we were going to stay with three girl cousins than with Uncle Slye, you'll start to get an idea what we're in for. The only time Uncle Slye smiles is when somebody overpays him by mistake."
Uncle Thad's one son died of flu. I didn't mention that to Allie. She wasn't listening anyhow. Too busy spitting on her paw and rubbing her cheek. The way Allie imitates, I guess I should stop wishing she could talk. I'm always saying something I wish I hadn't!
Mam and I had flu the same time as my cousin. Mam lost the baby she was carrying, and Dr. Spofford told her there wouldn't ever be another. Since then, she's made sure that Father keeps in mind how short I am.
While Mam and I were sick, Father hired a woman named Cora from Guinea, the neighborhood where all Newburyport's black people live, to take care of us. Cora's husband is the cook on Uncle Thad's schooner. He and Cora used to live in South Carolina, she told me. She said the Underground Railroad had helped her husband get from South Carolina to Newburyport, and that later, as soon as he could, he'd sent for her. Now her husband works for Uncle Thad. I tried to get Cora to tell me about the Underground Railroad, about how they'd helped her husband, but she just said, "Crowd your brain with what you don't need to know, you might find you ain't got room left for what you better had know!"
Instead she told me stories about Buh Rabbit, a critter who's a lot shorter than his enemy, Buh Wolf, but always beats him. For a long time I used to wish I could be sick again so I could hear more of Cora's stories. Back then, my favorite was the one where Buh Rabbit begs Buh Wolf to throw him in the fire instead of the briar patch. Now I'd like to get her to tell Allie and me one with a monkey in it.
Father says capuchins don't come from Africa, though, and Allie and I'd want a story about a monkey that looks like her. She has snow white fur all around her face and neck, and her face is as pink as Tom Chase's baby sister. (Mam swears that ruff makes Allie look like Queen Elizabeth, calls her Your Highness often as not.) Allie's tail is as long as Matthew G. Perry's, though he was ten times bigger than she is even before Belleville's congregation started slipping him treats. Walking to the post office with her on my shoulder turns heads. And that's as good as a story.
I tried to weigh Allie on Mam's kitchen scales while Mam was gardening, but Allie wouldn't hold still. I calculate she weighs about two pounds. Like me, she's still growing. (I hope like me, anyway.) For now, she rides everywhere on my shoulder and never makes it ache.
On my shoulder is where Allie perched when Mam marched us to Uncle Slye's store. We made better time than I liked. From our house on High Street to Ingle's Groceries on State is downhill more ways than one.
I opened the door to Ingle's for Mam. Clang went its bell. "Uncle Slye's quarters are behind the store," I'd told Allie before we set out. "If a customer comes when he's there, he wants to hustle back in. Somebody might snitch something! Uncle Slye doesn't have a door between his rooms and the shop, just a curtain, so he can hear that bell."
Uncle Slye wears rimless glasses and smells like old paper. He's so pale from sitting inside reading his ledger, his face reminds me of the greenish color my cousin's marble gravestone turns in the leaf-filtered sunshine. Out from behind his counter he stepped, smiling like a crocodile, until he realized Mam hadn't come to shop. "Here? A growing boy? He'll eat me out of stock! I'll be turning away customers!" He glared at Allie. "And what does that godless critter eat?"
"Just scraps," I answered quickly, giving Allie's foot a squeeze so she'd know I didn't mean it.
"Ray will help in your store to pay for his keep." Mam stuck out her chin. To keep Uncle Slye from arguing, or to keep me from protesting? Either way, it worked.
I wondered how long Mam's chin would affect Uncle Slye after she took it to Boston and left me and Allie alone with him.
She didn't embarrass me by hugging me goodbye in front of Uncle Slye. (Mam grew up with brothers.) She just squeezed my shoulder hard and told me she wouldn't be gone any longer than she had to be.
"Tie that varmint to a loft post!" Uncle Slye ordered the minute she was gone.
I was afraid the dark loft would scare Allie. She could hurt herself trying to get loose.
"She could earn money for you down here," I suggested.
Uncle Slye's whole body came to attention.
"How about a sign on the counter, 'Feed the Monkey a Peanut, One Copper'?"
Uncle Slye prints very clearly.
I set Allie on a cracker barrel beside the counter and told her, "Stay put!" She got her serious expression. I couldn't tell what she was thinking. I could guess what Uncle Slye was thinking, but he just went around the counter to sit on his own stool and told me to get a rag and polish the front window.
I was glad to be interrupted by a customer, until he handed me a paper bag and said, "Fill this with molasses, boy."
Cheap molasses that hasn't had all the water boiled out will soak through paper. I held that sack at arm's length under cheap Uncle Slye's molasses barrel spigot. Was I relieved when the sack held! The man started to pay me, but Uncle Slye was right there to take the money.
Our next visitor ordered "two pickles, boy."
Every dry day since Father'd sailed without me again, I'd been hooking my feet over a branch in our yard, then hanging as long as I could, trying to stretch myself taller. Allie would wrap her tail around the same branch and hang beside me. Now as I rolled up my sleeve, I wished I'd hung by my hands some too. My arm was in moldy brine to my elbow before I reached pickles.
Nobody'd fallen for our peanuts sign, but at least Allie stayed where I'd set her, watching everything. I had the feeling that by evening she'd be able to do anything I'd done.
At noon, three different sets of church bells rang twelve. Each started four beats after the other, like round singers. (Newburyporters set their clocks depending on which church they go to.) I looked hopefully at Uncle Slye, but he seemed to be playing deaf. Finally at one o'clock, he went into his quarters and fetched me a plate of cold boiled salt buffalo tongue.
"I'm not dining with that varmint!" he declared, and stamped back behind his curtain.
I sat on Uncle Slye's stool, and Allie perched on my shoulder so I could hand her up bits of tongue. We hadn't swallowed three bites before we began to smell frying onions.
Mid afternoon I was bagging peppermints, and Uncle Slye was watching to make sure I didn't pop one in my mouth, when my classmates Tom Chase and Clam Hopkins walked in. I hadn't shown up for baseball, so they'd tracked me down. Clam smirked at my apron, but Tom said, "I'm aiming to take the sloop out, Ray. Come along?"
Uncle Slye inhaled.
"Not today," I answered Tom, loud and clear. "Buy some peanuts," I whispered. "I'll pay you back."
Clam pretended not to hear, but Tom fed Allie three peanuts and left. Tom knows about chores. The Chases have two goats, and we can never go sailing till they're milked. You can bet I help!
Clam's never helped anybody. That scar on my forehead is where Clam got me with a snowball he claimed he didn't know had gravel in it.
"It's your own fault, for calling him Clam," Mam said.
"Nobody but his mother's called him Andrew since the day he admitted to liking clam chowder," I told her. "Ugh."
"Well," she said, "if you can't learn manners or kindness, you'll have to learn to dodge."
Clam is a funny nickname for somebody whose mouth is never shut. In the cartoons Tom Chase draws on his slate, "Andrew" is always a clam with bubbles rising from its wide-open shell.
One day after baseball, when everybody'd come to my house for lemonade and Clam was talking as usual, he came out with, "If you ask me, those Bostonians ought to run every abolitionist out of town!"
"Well, then, I hope the abolitionists all run to Newburyport!" I said, thinking of how Cora'd said they'd helped her husband.
Mam gave me the look she gets when telling me not to shoot off my mouth half-cocked. "Remember, Ray," she lectured me at supper, "a fly doesn't enter a shut mouth."
It was all Allie and I could do not to keep our mouths shut come suppertime at Uncle Slye's. He did fix something better than cold tongue: fried sausage. Only all Allie and I got of it was its smell through the loft floorboards. For us it was tongue again, and once we'd eaten as much of it as we could stomach, Uncle Slye'd sent us up for the night with one quilt and a chamber pot.
The loft was hot enough to smoke ham, so I just lay on top of the quilt. Soon Allie was snoring softly, like the waves lapping at Plum Island's shore. Lying on that hard floor, I dreamt I was chained in the hold of the Amistad with those slaves.
Allie didn't have any problem. She slept on my stomach.
But when the sunrise bells woke me, she was gone.
She'd seemed so afraid of Uncle Slye, I'd never imagined she'd leave my side. I grabbed my trousers, didn't stop for shoes or shirt. I had to find Allie before Uncle Slye woke up!
* * *
Low Country, South Carolina, April 1852
It hadn't been the new baby's cries in the room below that had wakened Ogun in his loft bunk, but that rare thing, his mother's voice rising. Ogun had slid out from under his blanket, crawled as soundlessly as possible across the splintery boards to the ladder hole, and lain there shivering, listening.
"Cold water to my middle all day," he'd heard his father say. "Hoeing another man's rice! Buckra rice! No more!"
Lying there with a cramp in his leg, Ogun had turned first hot with shock and baffled anger, then cold with misery. His father was leaving.
Ogun would be eleven in two days. Always before on his birthday his father had taken him fishing at the workday's end. Always. Where was he going? "Surely," Ogun thought, "if he cared about me, he could wait three days to go there." But the door had opened, and the door had closed. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sailing to Freedom by Martha Bennett Stiles. Copyright © 2012 Martha Bennett Stiles. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.