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When The Morning Stars Sang ...
By Sonseeahray (Kathy Lynn)
iUniverseCopyright © 2007 Kathy Lynn (Sonseeahray)
All rights reserved.
Seeing through a glass darkly ...
I was born a slave; but I never knew it until six years of my happy childhood had passed by. I was born in the big house, right in the very bed shared by my master and mistress, James and Laura Long. Yessir, I was raised in the big house just like I was their very own daughter. My real mama's name was Betsy Long. She was a quadroon and had been with my Mama Laura since they were both around ten years old. They were playmates. When Mama Laura married Papa Jim, her papa gave her Betsy as a wedding present to take with her to her new home. My real papa's name was Caleb Long. He was overseer of Papa Jim's carpenters and masons. He also went along when Papa Jim took his fancy horses up the river to race. Caleb was so able and such a good carpenter, that oftentimes Papa Jim would lease him out and send him long distances to help design and oversee construction of fancy houses and buildings. He had even designed and constructed the stone house and mill over by Cowan that Mister Castleberry built. Both buildings were very nice. The Cokers later owned the mill until it was burned down by the Yankees during the war. Anyway, Caleb and his sister Jennie were some of the first slaves Papa Jim bought when he was young and first starting up the plantation. Caleb was some years older than Betsy, and after she died giving birth to me, Caleb married a younger woman called Delia.
My birthday is March 17, 1810, and as I already told you, I was raised in the big house as the daughter Master and Missus never had.
When he was young, Papa had lived a wild life. Mama had told me how he was a real rounder. He drank hard and fought hard. He was also smart with cards. That was how he had made his fortune. He would go into a saloon somewhere, size up the competition, lose a few hands and then rake in his winnings and ride out of town quicklike and lay low for a few days before riding on to another town and saloon somewhere. Finally, when he was about twenty-four years old, at a church up near Stinking Creek, he attended a revival with an old aunt of his. He hadn't wanted to go, as he had no care for religion and was a hard-hearted young man. However, it was there that the Lord softened that hard heart and James Long repented of his sins and gave himself to God. He decided to change his ways, quit drinking and settle down. He invested his hoarded winnings in land, lots of land, near the settlement of Cowan in the young state called Tennessee.
I asked Papa once how he ended up in Franklin County, and he told me. He said that after he had given up his poker playing and became a Christian, he wanted to buy some land, find a wife and settle down. In spite of him being a new Christian and still "rough around the edges," he said that his faith was great. He got on his horse with the saddle bags full of money and rode off in no particular direction. On his eleventh day out, he stopped on top of a high hill. The most beautiful country he had ever seen stretched out around him. Papa said that he jumped off his horse, stretched out his hands and yelled to himself, "This is it, Jim. This is what you've been lookin for." He said he then grabbed his horse by the bridle and told her, "I've never seen such beautiful country!" In every direction he looked, he saw wooded mountains and hills, flowers, tall grass and large shade trees. He spied a spotted fawn sneaking a peek at him from around a tree. The mother deer then walked up behind her baby and looked at Papa for a moment before they both disappeared silently into the woods. Papa said he figured that the woods around there were full of wild critters. He said that he had spotted several springs and creeks too and knew that there would be plenty of water and more than likely, lots of good fishing.
The next day, Papa rode into Winchester and inquired at the store there about finding land to buy. As it turned out, the storekeeper knew of a large parcel of land that had been partially cleared for farming. It had been owned by fifteen families that were all members of some religion from up north. The fifteen families had worked the land for about three years before they were mostly wiped out by smallpox. Disheartened, the surviving ones had returned to the north. Papa was able to purchase the entire parcel for ten cents an acre. Papa said he had never in his life been so excited. He built a large cabin all by himself, large because he had plans to find himself a wife. He even built a lean-to on the back for extra storage. He felled trees for the walls and split others in half, working long hours with an adz, making the logs smooth enough for the cabin floor. It wasn't long before he had his cabin all finished and he was settled down. He made a smooth dining table, put shelves up for storage, made himself a bed (big enough for him and a wife), and got settled down in his new life. Papa said that he was anxious to get to plowing, but he knew that he needed help in order to farm such a large place. In Cowan one day, he overheard some fellow talking about a slave auction to be held up in Nashville. Papa attended the sale and brought back eight strong men to work at planting and farming cotton and one woman to cook, keep the clothes washed and mended and tend the vegetable garden. The first two years were spent preparing the land, planting wheat, corn and cotton. The next year was spent doing the same, plus he started buying the best horses he could find, traveling far and wide searching for just the right horse to add to his stable. When the crops were planted during the spring of Papa's third year, someone told him about a Cherokee man who owned a plantation in north Georgia near the headwaters of the Coosa River. That man's name was Yellow Jacket Carter and supposedly he raised good horses and had a really fine chestnut stallion. Papa decided he had to go down and buy that horse and he made up his mind to not come back home without it
To make a long story short, Yellow Jacket was Mama Laura's father. It turned out that the horse was not for sale, but Papa finagled his way into prolonging his visit with the Carter family. He soon forgot all about the chestnut because he became enamored with Yellow Jacket's daughter, Laura. He was even more intrigued by her because in spite of her beauty, refinement and grace, she would let her uncovered hair hang loose and ride a horse astride. She loved to race her horse against his. Papa left Georgia without a new horse but with love in his heart.
As soon as he could, he went back down to the Carter Plantation and married Laura Carter and brought her to live with him in Franklin County, Tennessee. Mama was a full-blood Cherokee, educated in Georgia and later sent back east to finishing school. She was beautiful, sophisticated and gracious. She and Papa were married in 1806 and lived in a cabin on his new land while he built his wedding gift for Laura, the mansion called Laura Glen. Papa and Mama were happy and always treated each other with utmost kindness. I had a little bedroom right off of their bedroom, separated by a curtain. Papa always wanted me close to Mama, especially since she could not walk. She had been hurt so horrendously not long after they were married and both of her legs had been cut off—one right above her ankle and the other about halfway up to her knee.
Mama had been married to Papa for about four years when I was born. I guess because of her injury, she could never have any babes of her own. Until I was about six years old, I never knew that Mama Laura was not my real mama. I never questioned why she wanted me to call her Mama when we were by ourselves and Miz Laura when we were not. I didn't know any better. I was so loved and fussed over that I never dreamed that I was of a different skin color or that I was owned. I always loved Papa and Mama and still do—they were precious God-fearing people. They were my parents. My family. I also had two brothers that were older than me that were children of Betsy and Caleb. Bun was the oldest and was a lot like Caleb, hard working and good. Debro, the younger one had shifty eyes and would sometimes cause trouble. I think Papa kept him as long as he did only out of respect for Caleb. Isn't it strange sometimes, how two boys with the same parents, upbringing and heritage, can be so different? One totally undisciplined and the other one creative, smart and obedient. Growing up, me and those boys were never really close because they just didn't seem like that they were my blood relatives. I also had Caleb's sister Jennie, who was in charge of the commissary and kitchen and the clothes washing. She was always of a generous size and had total control of the big house, second only to Mama Laura. She also kept the key to Papa Jim's strongbox where he kept his valuables. Aunt Jennie wore the key around her neck, and no one else was allowed to touch it. She was surely a most required person in the household, taking charge in all capacities. She always seemed kinda stern and easily annoyed, but really had a heart of gold.
Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early childhood. I was raised to believe in Jesus and prayer. From the earliest days of my memory, I recall Papa and Mama praying together and Mama singing songs to me about our Lord. When a circuit riding preacher would come through, he would stay with us for a few days and we would have church. For me anyway, the picture these men painted of God was not very pleasant. They usually yelled at us that we needed to repent. No one ever explained to me what repent was. They also said that if we did repent and were good, we would go to heaven. If not, watch out. No one ever explained to me what heaven was other than it was where God lived. Papa and Mama always had all of the slaves to come to these meetings also. We would all meet together in the side yard of the big house, me sitting between Papa and Mama in chairs up in the front. The slaves all sat on the ground. Caleb also was expected to have church for the slaves at other times. Caleb was called the "slave gospel preacher" on Laura Glen. Papa and Mama wanted all of their Negroes to know God. I sure didn't understand why. As for me, I always thought God was scary and that we were better off leaving him alone.
Something else that I remember with any certainty was when I about six or seven years old, I was playing with a ball that Papa had brought me back from one of his travels. Some of the little slave children were with me, and we were playing next to the big house, rolling and tossing the ball to each other. I then threw the ball really hard and it went through a window of the big house. The next thing I knew, my aunt Jennie was out the door, apron in hand, calling to us in a loud and threatening tone, demanding to know what we were doing and who had broke the window. None of us gave her an answer. All of the little ones were afraid of Jennie, so we all just looked at the ground and said not a word. I knew that I had done it, but was so scared that I didn't answer. So, with a loud "humph," Aunt Jennie turned and strode off towards the back yard, telling us to follow her. As she led the way down to a blackberry patch not far off, she lectured us in a very forceful manner of the importance of always telling the truth.
"When I ask you a question, you will answer!"
I cleverly asked her "What if we don't know?"
"Then, you say you don't know."
I saw the other children looking at me and suddenly felt very brave. I said, "I'll just say, 'Maybe, maybe not."
I remember how the other children laughed at this. Aunt Jennie got really mad then and made us all sit down on the grass to face her. She then started to tell us that some time all this world, including Laura Glen, would be burned up, that the moon would be turned into blood, the stars would fall out of the sky, and everything would melt away with a great heat, and that everybody, especially every little slave child that had told a lie, would be cast into a lake of fire and brimstone, and would burn there for ever and ever. We sat there big-eyed. Aunt Jennie never slowed up, she went on to preach to us that though we should burn for ever and ever, we would never be burned up.
I was dreadfully scared, and soon as I could get away, I ran to Mama and told her what Aunt Jennie had said; begging her to tell me it wasn't true. To my great sorrow, my Mama Laura simply confirmed what Aunt Jennie had said. Looking back, I realize that when I went in to see her, she was being fitted for a new dress and apparently was not paying that much attention to my distress. She simply restated what Aunt Jennie had said.
"Yes," she replied, "if you tell lies, you will be burned in the lake of fire that burns for ever and ever."
That made a very strong impression upon me. I never forgot Mama's words. I believed every word she said, and from that day forward, I never doubted its truth. My beloved Mama had confirmed it. Though my understanding of God and his laws was small, my fear of what should befall me if I were to tell a lie, was very great. Still, I was only a young child, and could not be unhappy for very long.
The next big thing in my life that I remember was that I learned from the talk around me, that I was a slave. I then learned that Betsy had been my real mama, and that Betsy had been my Mama Laura's slave, her property. Mama Laura was not my real mother. Oh, my little heart broke. Mama Laura and Betsy had played together as children; and when they became women, Betsy was a most faithful servant to her white possessor. The night before I was born, my mama Betsy was placed into Mama Laura's own bed in the big house to give birth to me. The labor was extremely painful and difficult. Finally, in the early morning, I was born and placed into Betsy's arms. Betsy knew that she was dying and on her death-bed she asked Mama Laura to please take care of her baby and raise me herself. Mama promised that I would never suffer for anything; and during her lifetime she kept her word. Mama always spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a slave merely in name, but in all truth, was Mama Laura's closest friend and confidant.
Once I knew Laura wasn't my real mama, she would tell me stories about Betsy. I could tell that she had really loved Betsy and missed her. She told me how she had named me Cassie, after Papa's mother. She also gave me the Cherokee name of Morning Star. She loved to tell me how she had taken me out on the porch and the morning stars all sang for joy when I was born. I liked that. I thought that story was so pretty. It still makes me smile when I remember it.
I was told that my home was forever to be at Laura Glen; and I found it a happy one to grow up in. Mama Laura was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to perform any task for her as much as my young years would permit. I would sit by her side for hours, doing simple sewing or embroidery with a heart as free from care as that of any free-born white child. When she thought I was tired, she would send me out to run and play with Laura Glen Plantation's other chattel children, and away I went, for hours playing games such as drop the handkerchief, hide and go seek and tag. Ah, such happy days they were. Neither I nor my little slave friends had any thought for the morrow; only for the present day with its simple tasks and hours of play.
* * *
In the parlor at Mama's side I learned so many things, for she was what some folks called "book educated." She had spent some time up north at some Yankee finishing school before she met Papa. She wanted me to be educated also, so over the years she read from poetry books and many other books to me besides just the Bible. She also knew a lot of poems and famous quotations by memory and seemed to always know just what to say for any occasion. For instance, if a person did a good deed for someone, she might say, "How far that little candle throws its beams. So shines a good deed in a naughty world." She said that Shakespeare had said that. She said, "Cassie, you know when you look outside at night and look towards the quarters and you can see a candle burning in one of the houses there? Well you can see that light from way over here in the big house and the man or woman in that cabin cannot tell how far their little light has shown."
Excerpted from When The Morning Stars Sang ... by Sonseeahray (Kathy Lynn). Copyright © 2007 Kathy Lynn (Sonseeahray). Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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