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Truth is, trouble follows me like a shadow.
To begin with, I was born a slave when other folks is born white. My momma was a slave and her momma a slave before that, so you can see we are nothing but a family of trouble. Master sold Momma before I was even old enough to remember her, and two old slaves named Harrison and Lilly had to raise me up like I was one of their own, even though I wasn't. Then, when I was in my eleventh year, the old slave Harrison decided to jump into trouble himself, and he tried to run away.
Problem was, I had to go with him.
THE BROKEN PLATE
It all started on a just-so day in the month of September 1859, when I broke my master's plate while clearing the supper table. I tried to tell Lilly that if Master Hackler hadn't taken a piece of bread and sopped pork fat all over his old plate, I wouldn't have dropped it.
But Lilly kept her lips pressed tight together, saying nothing as she scraped the vegetable scraps into the hog pails.
"And Young Mas Seth was sticking his foot this-away and that-away, tryin to trip me up," I added.
Lilly didn't even look at me, just kept scraping and scraping with her big, brown hands.
"Maybe it was a spiritcould be Old Mas Hackler's dead spiritthat got ahold of me right then and made that plate fly right outta my hands."
Lilly looked up and snorted, "Spirits. If Old Mas Hackler wanted to haunt this house, he'd go an' turn a whole table on its end, not bother with one little china plate in your hands." She pointed her scraping knife at me. "You gotta be more careful, Samuel, or they gonna sell you off sure as anything, and I can't do nothin to help you then. You understand me, child?"
"Yes'm," I answered, looking down at my feet. Every time Lilly said something like this to me, which was more often than not, it always brought up the same picture in my head. A picture of my momma. She had been sold when I was hardly even standing on my own two legs. Right after the Old Master Hackler had died. Lilly said that selling off my momma paid for his fancy carved headstone and oak burying box, but I'm not sure all that is true.
In my mind, I could see my momma being taken away in the back of Master's wagon, just the way Lilly told me. Her name was Hannah, and she was a tall, straight-backed woman with gingerbread skin like mine. Lilly said that she was wearing a blue-striped headwrap tied around her hair, and she was leaning over with her head down in her hands when they rode off. The only thing Lilly knew was that they took her to the courthouse in Washington, Kentucky, to sell her.
After my momma had gone, it had fallen on Lilly's shoulders to raise me as if I was her own boy, even though she wasn't any relation of mine and she'd already had two sons and four daughters, all sold off or dead. But she said I had more trouble in me than all six of her children rolled up together. "I gotta be on your heels day and night," she was always telling me. "And even that don't keep the bad things from happening."
When she was finished with the hog pails, Lilly came over to me. "How's that chin doin?" She lifted the cold rag I'd been holding and looked underneath. "Miz Catherine got good aim, I give her that."
After I had broken the china plate, Master Hackler's loud, redheaded wife, Miz Catherine, had flung her table fork at me. "You aren't worth the price of a broken plate, you know that?" she hollered, and sent one of the silver forks flying. Good thing I had sense enough not to duck my head down, so it hit right where she was aiming, square on my chin. Even though it stung all the way up to my ear, I didn't make a face. I was half-proud of myself for that.
"You pick up every little piece," Miz Catherine had snapped, pointing at the floor. "Every single piece with those worthless, black fingers of yours, and I'll decide what to do about your carelessness."
After that, Lilly had come barreling in to save me. She had helped me sweep up the white shards that had flown all over, and she told Miz Catherine that she would pay for the plate. Master usually gave Lilly a dollar to keep every Christmas. "What you think that plate cost?" Lilly asked Miz Catherine as she swept.
"How much do you have?" Miz Catherine sniffed.
"Maybe $4 saved up."
"Then I imagine it will cost you $4."
So the redheaded devil Miz Catherine had taken most of Lilly's savings just for my broken platealthough, truth was, Lilly really had $6 tucked away. And she had given me a banged-up chin. But, as Lilly always said, it could have been worse.
Then we heard Master Hackler's heavy footsteps coming down the hall. He walks hard on his heels, so you can always tell him from the others.
"You be quiet as a country graveyard," Lilly warned. "And gimme that cloth." Quick as anything, she snatched the cloth from my chin and began wiping a plate with it.
"Still cleaning up from supper?" Master Hackler said, peering around the doorway. "Samuel's made you mighty slow this evening, Lilly."
"Yes, he sho' has." Lilly kept her head down and wiped the plates in fast circles. "But I always git everything done, you know. Don't sleep a wink till everything gits done."