From the celebrated author of The Secret Life of Bees and the forthcoming novel The Book of Longings, a novel about two unforgettable American women.
Writing at the height of her narrative and imaginative gifts, Sue Monk Kidd presents a masterpiece of hope, daring, the quest for freedom, and the desire to have a voice in the world.
Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.
Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.
Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.
This exquisitely written novel is a triumph of storytelling that looks with unswerving eyes at a devastating wound in American history, through women whose struggles for liberation, empowerment, and expression will leave no reader unmoved.
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About the Author
Hometown:Charleston, South Carolina
Place of Birth:Albany, Georgia
Education:B.S., Texas Christian University, 1970
Read an Excerpt
THE INVENTION OF WINGS
Sue Monk Kidd’s first novel, The Secret Life of Bees, spent more than one hundred weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, has sold more than six million copies in the United States, was turned into an award-winning major motion picture, and has been translated into thirty-six languages. It has been nominated for and received numerous awards both here and abroad. Her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, was a number-one New York Times bestseller and adapted into a television movie. She is also the author of several acclaimed memoirs, including the New York Times bestseller Traveling with Pomegranates, written with her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor. She lives in Florida.
November 1803–February 1805
Hetty Handful Grimké
There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”
My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy. She looked at my face, how it flowed with sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”
Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.”
I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. We could fly all right, but it wasn’t any magic to it.
The day life turned into nothing this world could fix, I was in the work yard boiling slave bedding, stoking fire under the wash pot, my eyes burning from specks of lye soap catching on the wind. The morning was a cold one—the sun looked like a little white button stitched tight to the sky. For summers we wore homespun cotton dresses over our drawers, but when the Charleston winter showed up like some lazy girl in November or January, we got into our sacks—these thickset coats made of heavy yarns. Just an old sack with sleeves. Mine was a cast-off and trailed to my ankles. I couldn’t say how many unwashed bodies had worn it before me, but they had all kindly left their scents on it.
Already that morning missus had taken her cane stick to me once cross my backside for falling asleep during her devotions. Every day, all us slaves, everyone but Rosetta, who was old and demented, jammed in the dining room before breakfast to fight off sleep while missus taught us short Bible verses like “Jesus wept” and prayed out loud about God’s favorite subject, obedience. If you nodded off, you got whacked right in the middle of God said this and God said that.
I was full of sass to Aunt-Sister about the whole miserable business. I’d say, “Let this cup pass from me,” spouting one of missus’ verses. I’d say, “Jesus wept cause he’s trapped in there with missus, like us.”
Aunt-Sister was the cook—she’d been with missus since missus was a girl—and next to Tomfry, the butler, she ran the whole show. She was the only one who could tell missus what to do without getting smacked by the cane. Mauma said watch your tongue, but I never did. Aunt-Sister popped me backward three times a day.
I was a handful. That’s not how I got my name, though. Handful was my basket name. The master and missus, they did all the proper naming, but a mauma would look on her baby laid in its basket and a name would come to her, something about what her baby looked like, what day of the week it was, what the weather was doing, or just how the world seemed on that day. My mauma’s basket name was Summer, but her proper name was Charlotte. She had a brother whose basket name was Hardtime. People think I make that up, but it’s true as it can be.
If you got a basket name, you at least had something from your mauma. Master Grimké named me Hetty, but mauma looked on me the day I came into the world, how I was born too soon, and she called me Handful.
That day while I helped out Aunt-Sister in the yard, mauma was in the house, working on a gold sateen dress for missus with a bustle on the back, what’s called a Watteau gown. She was the best seamstress in Charleston and worked her fingers stiff with the needle. You never saw such finery as my mauma could whip up, and she didn’t use a stamping pattern. She hated a book pattern. She picked out the silks and velvets her own self at the market and made everything the Grimkés had—window curtains, quilted petticoats, looped panniers, buckskin pants, and these done-up jockey outfits for Race Week.
I can tell you this much—white people lived for Race Week. They had one picnic, promenade, and fancy going-on after another. Mrs. King’s party was always on Tuesday. The Jockey Club dinner on Wednesday. The big fuss came Saturday with the St. Cecilia ball when they strutted out in their best dresses. Aunt-Sister said Charleston had a case of the grandeurs. Up till I was eight or so, I thought the grandeurs was a shitting sickness.
Missus was a short, thick-waist woman with what looked like little balls of dough under her eyes. She refused to hire out mauma to the other ladies. They begged her, and mauma begged her too, cause she would’ve kept a portion of those wages for herself—but missus said, I can’t have you make anything for them better than you make for us. In the evenings, mauma tore strips for her quilts, while I held the tallow candle with one hand and stacked the strips in piles with the other, always by color, neat as a pin. She liked her colors bright, putting shades together nobody would think—purple and orange, pink and red. The shape she loved was a triangle. Always black. Mauma put black triangles on about every quilt she sewed.
We had a wooden patch box for keeping our scraps, a pouch for our needles and threads, and a true brass thimble. Mauma said the thimble would be mine one day. When she wasn’t using it, I wore it on my fingertip like a jewel. We filled our quilts up with raw cotton and wool thrums. The best filling was feathers, still is, and mauma and I never passed one on the ground without picking it up. Some days, mauma would come in with a pocketful of goose feathers she’d plucked from mattress holes in the house. When we got desperate to fill a quilt, we’d strip the long moss from the oak in the work yard and sew it between the lining and the quilt top, chiggers and all.
That was the thing mauma and I loved, our time with the quilts.
No matter what Aunt-Sister had me doing in the yard, I always watched the upstairs window where mauma did her stitching. We had a signal. When I turned the pail upside down by the kitchen house, that meant everything was clear. Mauma would open the window and throw down a taffy she stole from missus’ room. Sometimes here came a bundle of cloth scraps—real nice calicos, gingham, muslin, some import linen. One time, that true brass thimble. Her favorite thing to take was scarlet-red thread. She would wind it up in her pocket and walk right out the house with it.
The yard was over busy that day, so I didn’t have hope for a taffy falling from the clear blue. Mariah, the laundry slave, had burned her hand on charcoal from the iron and was laid up. Aunt-Sister was on a tear about the backed-up wash. Tomfry had the men fixing to butcher a hog that was running and screeching at the top of its lungs. Everyone was out there, from old Snow the carriage driver all the way down to the stable mucker, Prince. Tomfry wanted to get the killing over quick cause missus hated yard noise.
Noise was on her list of slave sins, which we knew by heart. Number one: stealing. Number two: disobedience. Number three: laziness. Number four: noise. A slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost—don’t see it, don’t hear it, but it’s always hovering round on ready.
Missus called out to Tomfry, said keep it down, a lady shouldn’t know where her bacon comes from. When we heard that, I told Aunt-Sister, missus didn’t know what end her bacon went in and what end it came out. Aunt-Sister slapped me into yesterday.
I took the long pole we called a battling stick and fished up the bedcovers from the wash pot and flopped them dripping on the rail where Aunt-Sister dried her cooking herbs. The rail in the stable was forbidden cause the horses had eyes too precious for lye. Slave eyes were another thing. Working the stick, I beat those sheets and blankets to an inch of their lives. We called it fetching the dirt.
After I got the wash finished, I was left idle and pleased to enjoy sin number three. I followed a path I’d worn in the dirt from looping it ten, twelve times a day. I started at the back of the main house, walked past the kitchen house and the laundry out to the spreading tree. Some of the branches on it were bigger round than my body, and every one of them curled like ribbons in a box. Bad spirits travel in straight lines, and our tree didn’t have one un-crooked place. Us slaves mustered under it when the heat bore down. Mauma always told me, don’t pull the gray moss off cause that keeps out the sun and everybody’s prying eyes.
I walked back past the stable and carriage house. The path took me cross the whole map of the world I knew. I hadn’t yet seen the spinning globe in the house that showed the rest of it. I poked along, wishing for the day to get used up so me and mauma could go to our room. It sat over the carriage house and didn’t have a window. The smell of manure from the stable and the cow house rose up there so ripe it seemed like our bed was stuffed with it instead of straw. The rest of the slaves had their rooms over the kitchen house.
The wind whipped up and I listened for ship sails snapping in the harbor cross the road, a place I’d smelled on the breeze, but never seen. The sails would go off like whips cracking and all us would listen to see was it some slave getting flogged in a neighbor-yard or was it ships making ready to leave. You found out when the screams started up or not.
The sun had gone, leaving a puckered place in the clouds, like the button had fallen off. I picked up the battling stick by the wash pot, and for no good reason, jabbed it into a squash in the vegetable garden. I pitched the butternut over the wall where it splatted in a loud mess.
Then the air turned still. Missus’ voice came from the back door, said, “Aunt-Sister, bring Hetty in here to me right now.”
I went to the house, thinking she was in an uproar over her squash. I told my backside to brace up.
My eleventh birthday began with Mother promoting me from the nursery. For a year I’d longed to escape the porcelain dolls, tops, and tiny tea sets strewn across the floor, the small beds lined up in a row, the whole glut and bedlam of the place, but now that the day had come, I balked at the threshold of my new room. It was paneled with darkness and emanated the smell of my brother—all things smoky and leather. The oak canopy and red velvet valance of the bedstead was so towering it seemed closer to the ceiling than the floor. I couldn’t move for dread of living alone in such an enormous, overweening space.
Drawing a breath, I flung myself across the door sill. That was the artless way I navigated the hurdles of girlhood. Everyone thought I was a plucky girl, but in truth, I wasn’t as fearless as everyone assumed. I had the temperament of a tortoise. Whatever dread, fright, or bump appeared in my path, I wanted nothing more than to drop in my tracks and hide. If you must err, do so on the side of audacity. That was the little slogan I’d devised for myself. For some time now, it had helped me to hurl myself over door sills.
That morning was full of cold, bright wind pouring off the Atlantic and clouds blowing like windsocks. For a moment, I stood just inside the room listening to the saber-fronds on the palmettos clatter around the house. The eaves of the piazza hissed. The porch swing groaned on its chains. Downstairs in the warming kitchen, Mother had the slaves pulling out Chinese tureens and Wedgwood cups, preparing for my birthday party. Her maid Cindie had spent hours wetting and fastening Mother’s wig with paper and curlers and the sour smell of it baking had nosed all the way up the stairs.
I watched as Binah, the nursery mauma, tucked my clothes into the heavy old wardrobe, recalling how she used a fire poke to rock Charles’ cradle, her cowrie shell bracelets rattling along her arms while she terrified us with tales of the Booga Hag—an old woman who rode about on a broom and sucked the breath from bad children. I would miss Binah. And sweet Anna, who slept with her thumb in her mouth. Ben and Henry, who jumped like banshees until their mattresses erupted with geysers of goose feathers, and little Eliza, who had a habit of slipping into my bed to hide from the Booga’s nightly reign of terror.
Of course, I should’ve graduated from the nursery long ago, but I’d been forced to wait for John to go away to college. Our three-storied house was one of the grandest in Charleston, but it lacked enough bedrooms, considering how . . . well, fruitful Mother was. There were ten of us: John, Thomas, Mary, Frederick, and myself, followed by the nursery dwellers—Anna, Eliza, Ben, Henry, and baby Charles. I was the middle one, the one Mother called different and Father called remarkable, the one with the carroty hair and the freckles, whole constellations of them. My brothers had once traced Orion, the Dipper, and Ursa Major on my cheeks and forehead with charcoal, connecting the bright red specks, and I hadn’t minded—I’d been their whole sky for hours.
Everyone said I was Father’s favorite. I don’t know whether he preferred me or pitied me, but he was certainly my favorite. He was a judge on South Carolina’s highest court and at the top of the planter class, the group Charleston claimed as its elite. He’d fought with General Washington and been taken prisoner by the British. He was too modest to speak of these things—for that, he had Mother.
Her name was Mary, and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord. She was descended from the first families of Charleston, that little company of Lords that King Charles had sent over to establish the city. She worked this into conversations so tirelessly we no longer made the time or effort to roll our eyes. Besides governing the house, a host of children, and fourteen slaves, she kept up a round of social and religious duties that would’ve worn out the queens and saints of Europe. When I was being forgiving, I said that my mother was simply exhausted. I suspected, though, she was simply mean.
When Binah finished arranging my hair combs and ribbons on the lavish Hepplewhite atop my new dressing table, she turned to me, and I must have looked forsaken standing there because she clucked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and said, “Poor Miss Sarah.”
I did so despise the attachment of Poor to my name. Binah had been muttering Poor Miss Sarah like an incantation since I was four.
It’s my earliest memory: arranging my brother’s marbles into words. It is summer, and I am beneath the oak that stands in the back corner of the work yard. Thomas, ten, whom I love above all the others, has taught me nine words: SARAH, GIRL, BOY, GO, STOP, JUMP, RUN, UP, DOWN. He has written them on a parchment and given me a pouch of forty-eight glass marbles with which to spell them out, enough to shape two words at a time. I arrange the marbles in the dirt, copying Thomas’ inked words. Sarah Go. Boy Run. Girl Jump. I work as fast as I can. Binah will come soon looking for me.
It’s Mother, however, who descends the back steps into the yard. Binah and the other house slaves are clumped behind her, moving with cautious, synchronized steps as if they’re a single creature, a centipede crossing an unprotected space. I sense the shadow that hovers over them in the air, some devouring dread, and I crawl back into the green-black gloom of the tree.
The slaves stare at Mother’s back, which is straight and without give. She turns and admonishes them. “You are lagging. Quickly now, let us be done with this.”
As she speaks, an older slave, Rosetta, is dragged from the cow house, dragged by a man, a yard slave. She fights, clawing at his face. Mother watches, impassive.
He ties Rosetta’s hands to the corner column of the kitchen house porch. She looks over her shoulder and begs. Missus, please. Missus. Missus. Please. She begs even as the man lashes her with his whip.
Her dress is cotton, a pale yellow color. I stare transfixed as the back of it sprouts blood, blooms of red that open like petals. I cannot reconcile the savagery of the blows with the mellifluous way she keens or the beauty of the roses coiling along the trellis of her spine. Someone counts the lashes—is it Mother? Six, seven.
The scourging continues, but Rosetta stops wailing and sinks against the porch rail. Nine, ten. My eyes look away. They follow a black ant traveling the far reaches beneath the tree—the mountainous roots and forested mosses, the endless perils—and in my head I say the words I fashioned earlier. Boy Run. Girl Jump. Sarah Go.
Thirteen. Fourteen . . . I bolt from the shadows, past the man who now coils his whip, job well done, past Rosetta hanging by her hands in a heap. As I bound up the back steps into the house, Mother calls to me, and Binah reaches to scoop me up, but I escape them, thrashing along the main passage, out the front door, where I break blindly for the wharves.
I don’t remember the rest with clarity, only that I find myself wandering across the gangplank of a sailing vessel, sobbing, stumbling over a turban of rope. A kind man with a beard and a dark cap asks what I want. I plead with him, Sarah Go.
Binah chases me, though I’m unaware of her until she pulls me into her arms and coos, “Poor Miss Sarah, poor Miss Sarah.” Like a decree, a proclamation, a prophecy.
When I arrive home, I am a muss of snot, tears, yard dirt, and harbor filth. Mother holds me against her, rears back and gives me an incensed shake, then clasps me again. “You must promise never to run away again. Promise me.”
I want to. I try to. The words are on my tongue—the rounded lumps of them, shining like the marbles beneath the tree.
“Sarah!” she demands.
Nothing comes. Not a sound.
I remained mute for a week. My words seemed sucked into the cleft between my collar bones. I rescued them by degrees, by praying, bullying and wooing. I came to speak again, but with an odd and mercurial form of stammer. I’d never been a fluid speaker, even my first spoken words had possessed a certain belligerent quality, but now there were ugly, halting gaps between my sentences, endless seconds when the words cowered against my lips and people averted their eyes. Eventually, these horrid pauses began to come and go according to their own mysterious whims. They might plague me for weeks and then remain away months, only to return again as abruptly as they left.
The day I moved from the nursery to commence a life of maturity in John’s staid old room, I wasn’t thinking of the cruelty that had taken place in the work yard when I was four or of the thin filaments that had kept me tethered to my voice ever since. Those concerns were the farthest thing from my mind. My speech impediment had been absent for some time now—four months and six days. I’d almost imagined myself cured.
So when Mother swept into the room all of a sudden—me, in a paroxysm of adjustment to my surroundings, and Binah, tucking my possessions here and there—and asked if my new quarters were to my liking, I was stunned by my inability to answer her. The door slammed in my throat, and the silence hung there. Mother looked at me and sighed.
When she left, I willed my eyes to remain dry and turned away from Binah. I couldn’t bear to hear one more Poor Miss Sarah.
Aunt-Sister took me to the warming kitchen where Binah and Cindie were fussing over silver trays, laying them full of ginger cake and apples with ground nuts. They had on their good long aprons with starch. Off in the drawing room, it sounded like bees buzzing.
Missus showed up and told Aunt-Sister to peel off my nasty coat and wash my face, then she said, “Hetty, this is Sarah’s eleventh birthday and we are having a party for her.”
She took a lavender ribbon from the top of the pie safe and circled it round my neck, tying a bow, while Aunt-Sister peeled the black off my cheeks with her rag. Missus wound more ribbon round my waist. When I tugged, she told me in a sharp way, “Stop that fidgeting, Hetty! Be still.”
Missus had done the ribbon too snug at my throat. It felt like I couldn’t swallow. I searched for Aunt-Sister’s eyes, but they were glued on the food trays. I wanted to tell her, Get me free of this, help me, I need the privy. I always had something smart to say, but my voice had run down my throat like a kitchen mouse.
I danced on one leg and the other. I thought what mauma had told me, “You be good coming up on Christmas cause that when they sell off the extra children or else send them to the fields.” I didn’t know one slave master Grimké had sold, but I knew plenty he’d sent to his plantation in the back country. That’s where mauma had come from, bearing me inside her and leaving my daddy behind.
I stopped all my fidget then. My whole self went down in the hole where my voice was. I tried to do what they said God wanted. Obey, be quiet, be still.
Missus studied me, how I looked in the purple ribbons. Taking me by the arm, she led me to the drawing room where the ladies sat with their dresses fussed out and their china teacups and lacy napkins. One lady played the tiny piano called a harpsichord, but she stopped when missus gave a clap with her hands.
Every eye fixed on me. Missus said, “This is our little Hetty. Sarah, dear, she is your present, your very own waiting maid.”
I pressed my hands between my legs and missus knocked them away. She turned me a full circle. The ladies started up like parrots—happy birthday, happy birthday—their fancy heads pecking the air. Miss Sarah’s older sister, Miss Mary, sat there full of sulk from not being the center of the party. Next to missus, she was the worst bird in the room. We’d all seen her going round with her waiting maid, Lucy, smacking the girl six ways from Sunday. We all said if Miss Mary dropped her kerchief from the second floor, she’d send Lucy jumping out the window for it. Least I didn’t end up with that one.
Miss Sarah stood up. She was wearing a dark blue dress and had rosy-colored hair that hung straight like corn silk and freckles the same red color all over her face. She took a long breath and started working her lips. Back then, Miss Sarah pulled words up from her throat like she was raising water from a well.
When she finally got the bucket up, we could hardly hear what she was saying. “. . . . . . . . . I’m sorry, Mother. . . . . . I can’t accept.”
Missus asked her to say it over. This time Miss Sarah bellowed it like a shrimp peddler.
Missus’ eyes were frost blue like Miss Sarah’s, but they turned dark as indigo. Her fingernails bore into me and carved out what looked like a flock of birds on my arm. She said, “Sit down, Sarah dear.”
Miss Sarah said, “. . . I don’t need a waiting maid . . . I’m perfectly fine without one.”
“That is quite enough,” missus said. How you could miss the warning in that, I don’t know. Miss Sarah missed it by a mile.
“. . . Couldn’t you save her for Anna?”
Miss Sarah plopped on her chair like somebody shoved her.
The water started in a trickle down my leg. I jerked every way I could to get free of missus’ claws, but then it came in a gush on the rug.
Missus let out a shriek and everything went hush. You could hear embers leap round in the fireplace.
I had a slap coming, or worse. I thought of Rosetta, how she threw a shaking fit when it suited her. She’d let the spit run from her mouth and send her eyes rolling back. She looked like a beetle-bug upside down trying to right itself, but it got her free of punishment, and it crossed my mind to fall down and pitch a fit myself the best I could.
But I stood there with my dress plastered wet on my thighs and shame running hot down my face.
Aunt-Sister came and toted me off. When we passed the stairs in the main hall, I saw mauma up on the landing, pressing her hands to her chest.
That night doves sat up in the tree limbs and moaned. I clung to mauma in our rope bed, staring at the quilt frame, the way it hung over us from the ceiling rafters, drawn tight on its pulleys. She said the quilt frame was our guarding angel. She said, “Everything gon be all right.” But the shame stayed with me. I tasted it like a bitter green on my tongue.
The bells tolled cross Charleston for the slave curfew, and mauma said the Guard would be out there soon beating on their drums, but she said it like this: “Bugs be in the wheat ’fore long.”
Then she rubbed the flat bones in my shoulders. That’s when she told me the story from Africa her mauma told her. How the people could fly. How they flew over trees and clouds. How they flew like blackbirds.
Next morning mauma handed me a quilt matched to my length and told me I couldn’t sleep with her anymore. From here on out, I would sleep on the floor in the hall outside Miss Sarah’s bed chamber. Mauma said, “Don’t get off your quilt for nothin’ but Miss Sarah calling. Don’t wander ’bout. Don’t light no candle. Don’t make noise. When Miss Sarah rings the bell, you make haste.”
Mauma told me, “It gon be hard from here on, Handful.”
I was sent to solitary confinement in my new room and ordered to write a letter of apology to each guest. Mother settled me at the desk with paper, inkwell, and a letter she’d composed herself, which I was to copy.
“. . . . . . You didn’t punish Hetty, did you?” I asked.
“Do you think me inhuman, Sarah? The girl had an accident. What could I do?” She shrugged with exasperation. “If the rug cannot be cleaned, it will have to be thrown out.”
As she walked to the door, I struggled to pry the words from my mouth before she exited. “. . . . . . Mother, please, let me. . . . . . let me give Hetty back to you.”
Give Hetty back. As if she was mine after all. As if owning people was as natural as breathing. For all my resistance about slavery, I breathed that foul air, too.
“Your guardianship is legal and binding. Hetty is yours, Sarah, there is nothing to be done about it.”
“. . . . . . But—”
I heard the commotion of her petticoats as she crossed the rug back to me. She was a woman the winds and tides obeyed, but in that moment, she was gentle with me. Placing a finger under my chin, she tilted my face to hers and smiled. “Why must you fight this? I don’t know where you get these alien ideas. This is our way of life, dear one, make your peace with it.” She kissed the top of my head. “I expect all eighteen letters by the morning.”
The room filled with an orange glow that lit the cypress panels, then melted into dusk and shadows. In my mind, I could see Hetty clearly—the confused, mortified look on her face, her hair braids cocked in every direction, the disgraceful lavender ribbons. She was puny in the extreme, a year younger than I, but she looked all of six years old. Her limbs were stick and bone. Her elbows, the curves of two fastening pins. The only thing of any size about her was her eyes, which were colored a strange shade of gold and floated above her black cheeks like shiny half-moons.
It seemed traitorous to ask forgiveness for something I didn’t feel sorry for in the least. What I regretted was how pathetic my protest had turned out. I wanted nothing more than to sit here unyielding through the night, for days and weeks if need be, but in the end I gave in and wrote the damnable letters. I knew myself to be an odd girl with my mutinous ideas, ravenous intellect, and funny looks, and half the time I sputtered like a horse straining at its bit, qualities in the female sex that were not endearing. I was on my way to being the family pariah, and I feared the ostracism. I feared it most of all.
Over and over I wrote:
Thank you for the honor and kindness you bestowed upon me by attending my eleventh birthday tea. I regret that though I have been well-taught by my parents, my behavior on this occasion was exceedingly ill-mannered. I humbly beg your pardon for my rudeness and disrespect.
Your Remorseful Friend,
I climbed the preposterous height to the mattress and had only just settled when a bird outside my window began to trill. First, a stream of pelting whistles, then a soft, melancholic song. I felt alone in the world with my alien ideas.
Sliding from my perch, I stole to the window where I shivered in my white woolen gown, gazing along East Bay, past the dark rooftops toward the harbor. With hurricane season behind us, there were close to a hundred topsails moored out there, shimmering on the water. Plastering my cheek against the frigid pane, I discovered I had a partial view of the slave quarters above the carriage house where I knew Hetty to be spending her last night with her mother. Tomorrow she would take up her duties and sleep outside my door.
It was then I had a sudden epiphany. I lit a candle from the dwindling coals in the fire, opened my door, and stepped into the dark, unheated passageway. Three dark shapes lay on the floor beside the bedroom doors. I’d never really seen the world beyond the nursery at night and it took a moment to realize the shapes were slaves, sleeping close by in case a Grimké rang his bell.
Mother wished to replace the archaic arrangement with one that had recently been installed in the house of her friend, Mrs. Russell. There, buttons were pressed that rang in the slaves’ quarters, each with a special chime. Mother was bent on the innovation, but Father thought it wasteful. Though we were Anglicans, he had a mild streak of Huguenot frugality. There would be ostentatious buttons in the Grimké household over his dead body.
I crept barefooted down the wide mahogany stairs to the first floor where two more slaves slept, along with Cindie, who sat wide awake with her back against the wall outside my parents’ chamber. She eyed me warily, but didn’t ask what I was doing.
I picked my way along the Persian rug that ran the near-length of the main passage, turned the knob to Father’s library, and stepped inside. An ornately framed portrait of George Washington was lit with a scrim of moonlight coming through the front window. For almost a year, Father had looked the other way as I’d slipped beneath Mr. Washington’s nose to plunder the library. John, Thomas, and Frederick had total reign over his vast trove—books of law, geography, philosophy, theology, history, botany, poetry, and the Greek humanities—while Mary and I were officially forbidden to read a word of it. Mary didn’t seem to care for books, but I . . . I dreamed of them in my sleep. I loved them in a way I couldn’t fully express even to Thomas. He pointed me to certain volumes and drilled me on Latin declensions. He was the only one who knew my desperation to acquire a true education, beyond the one I received at the hands of Madame Ruffin, my tutor and French nemesis.
She was a small, hot-tempered woman who wore a widow’s cap with strings floating at her cheeks, and when it was cold, a squirrely fur cloak and tiny fur-lined shoes. She was known to line girls up on the Idle Bench for the smallest infraction and scream at them until they fainted. I despised her, and her “polite education for the female mind,” which was composed of needlework, manners, drawing, basic reading, penmanship, piano, Bible, French, and enough arithmetic to add two and two. I thought it possible I might die from tracing teensy flowers on the pages of my art tablet. Once I wrote in the margin, “If I should die of this horrid exercise, I wish these flowers to adorn my coffin.” Madame Ruffin was not amused. I was made to stand on the Idle Bench, where she ranted at my insolence, and where I forced myself not to faint.
Increasingly, during those classes, longings had seized me, foreign, torrential aches that overran my heart. I wanted to know things, to become someone. Oh, to be a son! I adored Father because he treated me almost as if I were a son, allowing me to slip in and out of his library.
On that night, the coals in the library’s fireplace lay cold and the smell of cigar smoke still pooled in the air. Without effort, I located Father’s South Carolina Justice of the Peace and Public Laws, which he himself had authored. I’d thumbed through it enough to know somewhere in the pages was a copy of a legal manumission document.
Upon finding it, I took paper and quill from Father’s desk and copied it:
I hereby certify that on this day, 26 November 1803, in the city of Charleston, in the state of South Carolina, I set free from slavery, Hetty Grimké, and bestow this certificate of manumission upon her.
Sarah Moore Grimké
What could Father do but make Hetty’s freedom as legal and binding as her ownership? I was following a code of law he’d fashioned himself! I left my handiwork atop the backgammon box on his desk.
In the corridor, I heard the tingle of Mother’s bell, summoning Cindie, and I broke into a run back upstairs that blew out the flame on my candle.
My room had turned even colder and the little bird had ceased its song. I crept beneath the stack-pile of quilts and blankets, but couldn’t sleep for excitement. I imagined the thanksgiving Hetty and Charlotte would heap on me. I imagined Father’s pride when he discovered the document, and Mother’s annoyance. Legal and binding, indeed! Finally, overcome with fatigue and satisfaction, I drifted to sleep.
When I woke, the bluish tint of the Delft tiles around the hearth gleamed with light. I sat up into the quietness. My ecstatic burst of the night before had drained away, leaving me calm and clear. I couldn’t have explained then how the oak tree lives inside the acorn or how I suddenly realized that in the same enigmatic way something lived inside of me—the woman I would become—but it seemed I knew at once who she was.
It had been there all along as I’d scoured Father’s books and constructed my arguments during our dinner table debates. Only the past week, Father had orchestrated a discussion between Thomas and me on the topic of exotic fossilized creatures. Thomas argued that if these strange animals were truly extinct, it implied poor planning on God’s part, threatening the ideal of God’s perfection, therefore, such creatures must still be alive in remote places on earth. I argued that even God should be allowed to change his mind. “Why should God’s perfection be based on having an unchanging nature?” I asked. “Isn’t flexibility more perfect than stasis?”
Father slapped his hand on the table. “If Sarah was a boy, she would be the greatest jurist in South Carolina!”
At the time, I’d been awed by his words, but it wasn’t until now, waking up in my new room, that I saw their true meaning. The comprehension of my destiny came in a rush. I would become a jurist.
Naturally, I knew there were no female lawyers. For a woman, nothing existed but the domestic sphere and those tiny flowers etched on the pages of my art book. For a woman to aspire to be a lawyer—well, possibly, the world would end. But an acorn grew into an oak tree, didn’t it?
I told myself the affliction in my voice wouldn’t stop me, it would compel me. It would make me strong, for I would have to be strong.
I had a history of enacting small private rituals. The first time I took a book from Father’s library, I’d penned the date and title—February 25, 1803, Lady of the Lake—on a sliver of paper that I wedged into a tortoise-shell hair clip and wore about surreptitiously. Now, with dawn gathering in bright tufts across the bed, I wanted to consecrate what was surely my greatest realization.
I went to the armoire and took down the blue dress Charlotte had sewed for the disastrous birthday party. Where the collar met, she’d stitched a large silver button with an engraved fleur de lis. Using the hawk bill letter opener John had left behind, I sawed it off. Squeezing it in my palm, I prayed, Please, God, let this seed you planted in me bear fruit.
When I opened my eyes, everything was the same. The room still bore patches of early light, the dress lay like a blue heap of sky on the floor, the silver button was clutched in my palm, but I felt God had heard me.
The sterling button took on everything that transpired that night—the revulsion of owning Hetty, the relief of signing her manumission, but mostly the bliss of recognizing that innate seed in myself, the one my father had already seen. A jurist.
I tucked the button inside a small box made of Italian lava rock, which I’d received one Christmastime, then hid it at the back of my dressing drawer.
Voices came from the corridor mingled with the clink-clank of trays and pitchers. The sound of slaves in their servitude. The world waking.
I dressed hurriedly, wondering if Hetty was already outside my door. As I opened it, my heart picked up its pace, but Hetty wasn’t there. The manumission document I’d written lay on the floor. It was torn in two.
My life with Miss Sarah got off on a bad left foot.
When I got to her room that first morning, the door hung open and Miss Sarah was sitting in the cold, staring at the blank wall. I stuck my head in and said, “Miss Sarah, you want me to come in there?”
She had thick little hands with stubby fingers and they went up to her mouth and spread open like a lady’s fan. Her eyes were pale and spoke plainer than her mouth. They said, I don’t want you here. Her mouth said, “. . . . . . Yes, come in. . . . . . I’m pleased to have you for my waiting maid.” Then she slumped in her chair and went back to what she was doing before. Nothing.
A ten-year-old yard slave who hadn’t done nothing but chores for Aunt-Sister never got inside the house much. And never to the top floors. What such a room! She had a bed big as a horse buggy, a dressing table with a looking glass, a desk for holding books and more books, and lots of padded chairs. The chimney place had a fire screen embroidered with pink flowers I knew came from mauma’s needle. Up on the mantel were two white vases, pure porcelain.
I looked everything over, then stood there, wondering what to do. I said, “Sure is cold.”
Miss Sarah didn’t answer, so I said louder, “SURE IS COLD.”
This snapped her from her wall-staring. “. . . . . . You could lay a fire, I guess.”
I’d seen it done, but seeing ain’t doing. I didn’t know to check the flue, and here came all this smoke swarming out like chimney bats.
Miss Sarah started throwing open windows. It must’ve looked like the house was burning cause out in the yard Tomfry yelled, “Fire, fire.”
Then everybody took it up.
I grabbed the basin of water in the dressing room used for freshening up and hurled it on the fire, which didn’t do nothing but cause the smoke to double up. Miss Sarah fanned it out the windows, looking like a ghost through all the black clouds. There was a jib door in her room that opened to the piazza, and I ran to get it open, wanting to shout to Tomfry we didn’t have a fire, but before I could yank it free, I heard missus flying round the house hollering for everybody to get out and take an armload.
After the smoke thinned to a few floating cobwebs, I followed Miss Sarah to the yard. Old Snow and Sabe had already bridled up the horses and pulled the carriages to the back in case the whole yard went down with the house. Tomfry had Prince and Eli toting buckets from the cistern. Some neighbor men had showed up with more buckets. Folks feared a fire worse than the devil. They kept a slave sitting all day up in the steeple on St. Michael’s, watching the rooftops for fire, and I worried he’d see all this smoke, ring the church bell, and the whole brigade show up.
I ran to mauma who was bunched with the rest of ’em. The stuff they thought worth saving was heaped in piles by their feet. China bowls, tea caddies, record books, clothes, portraits, Bibles, brooches, and pearls. Even a marble bust was sitting out there. Missus had her gold-tip cane in one hand and a silver cigar holder in the other.
Miss Sarah was trying to cut through the frantics to tell Tomfry and the men there wasn’t a fire to throw their water on, but by the time she dragged the words out of her mouth, the men had gone back to hauling water.
When it got worked out what’d happened, missus went into a fury. “Hetty, you incompetent fool!”
Nobody moved, not even the neighbor men. Mauma moved over and tucked me behind her, but missus jerked me out front. She brought the gold-tip cane down on the back of my head, worst blow I ever got. It drove me to my knees.
Mauma screamed. So did Miss Sarah. But missus, she raised her arm like she’d go at me again. I can’t describe proper what came next. The work yard, the people in it, the walls shutting us in, all that fell away. The ground rolled out from under me and the sky billowed off like a tent caught in the wind. I was in a space to myself, somewhere time can’t cross. A voice called steady in my head, Get up from there. Get up from there and look her in the face. Dare her to strike you. Dare her.
I got on my feet and poked my face at her. My eyes said, Hit me, I dare you.
Missus let her arm drop and stepped back.
Then the yard was round me again and I reached up and felt my head. A lump was there the size of a quail egg. Mauma reached over and touched it with her fingertip.
The rest of that God-forsook day every woman and girl slave was made to drag clothes, linens, rugs, and curtains from every room upstairs out to the piazza for airing-out. Everyone but mauma and Binah showered me with looks of despising. Miss Sarah came up there wanting to help and started hauling with the rest of us. Every time I turned round, she was looking at me like she’d never seen me before in her life.
I took meals alone in my room for three full days as a protest against owning Hetty, though I don’t think anyone much noticed. On the fourth day, I swallowed my pride and arrived in the dining room for breakfast. Mother and I hadn’t spoken of the doomed manumission document. I suspected she was the one who’d torn it into two even pieces and deposited them outside my room, thereby having the Last Word without uttering a syllable.
At the age of eleven, I owned a slave I couldn’t free.
The meal, the largest of the day, had long been under way—Father, Thomas, and Frederick had already left in pursuit of school and work, while Mother, Mary, Anna, and Eliza remained.
“You are late, my dear,” Mother said. Not without a note of sympathy.
Phoebe, who assisted Aunt-Sister and looked slightly older than myself, appeared at my elbow, emanating the fresh odors of the kitchen house—sweat, coal, smoke, and an acrid fishiness. Typically, she stood by the table and swished the fly brush, but today she slid a plate before me heaped with sausages, grit cake, salted shrimp, brown bread, and tapioca jelly.
Attempting to lower a quivery cup of tea beside my plate, Phoebe deposited it on top my spoon, causing the contents to slosh onto the cloth. “Oh missus, I sorry,” she cried, whirling toward Mother.
Mother blew out her breath as if all the mistakes of all the Negroes in the world rested personally upon her shoulders. “Where is Aunt-Sister? Why, for heaven’s sake, are you serving?”
“She showing me how to do it.”
“Well, see that you learn.”
As Phoebe rushed to stand outside the door, I tried to toss her a smile.
“It’s nice of you to make an appearance,” Mother said. “You are recovered?”
All eyes turned on me. Words collected in my mouth and lay there. At such moments, I used a technique in which I imagined my tongue like a slingshot. I drew it back, tighter, tighter. “. . . . . . I’m fine.” The words hurled across the table in a spray of saliva.
Mary made a show of dabbing her face with a napkin.
She’ll end up exactly like Mother, I thought. Running a house congested with children and slaves, while I—
“I trust you found the remains of your folly?” Mother asked.
Ah, there it was. She had confiscated my document, likely without Father knowing.
“What folly?” Mary said.
I gave Mother a pleading look.
“Nothing you need concern yourself with, Mary,” she said, and tilted her head as if she wanted to mend the rift between us.
I slumped in my chair and debated taking my cause to Father and presenting him with the torn manumission document. I could think of little else for the rest of the day, but by nightfall, I knew it would do no good. He deferred to Mother on all household matters, and he abhorred a tattler. My brothers never tattled, and I would do no less. Besides, I would’ve been an idiot to rile Mother further.
I countered my disappointment by conducting vigorous talks with myself about the future. Anything is possible, anything at all.
Nightly, I opened the lava box and gazed upon the silver button.
Missus said I was the worst waiting maid in Charleston. She said, “You are abysmal, Hetty, abysmal.”
I asked Miss Sarah what abysmal means and she said, “Not quite up to standard.”
Uh huh. I could tell from missus’ face, there’s bad, there’s worse, and after that comes abysmal.
That first week, beside the smoke, I spilled lamp oil on the floor leaving a slick spot, broke one of those porcelain vases, and fried a piece of Miss Sarah’s red hair with a curling tong. Miss Sarah never tattled. She tugged the rug over to cover the oily place, hid the broke porcelain in a storeroom in the cellar, and cut off her singed hair with the snuffer we used to snip the candle wick.
Only time Miss Sarah rang her bell for me was if missus was headed our way. Binah and her two girls, Lucy and Phoebe, always sang out, “The cane tapping. The cane tapping.” Miss Sarah’s warning bell gave me some extra lead on my rope, and I took it. I would rove down the hallway to the front alcove where I could see the water in the harbor float to the ocean and the ocean roll on till it sloshed against the sky. Nothing could hold a glorybound picture to it.
First time I saw it, my feet hopped in place and I lifted my hand over my head and danced. That’s when I got true religion. I didn’t know to call it religion back then, didn’t know Amen from what-when, I just knew something came into me that made me feel the water belonged to me. I would say, that’s my water out there.
I saw it turn every color. It was green one day, then brown, next day yellow as cider. Purple, black, blue. It stayed restless, never ceasing. Boats coming and going on top, fishes underneath.
I would sing these little verses to it:
Cross the water, cross the sea
Let them fishes carry me.
If that water take too long,
Carry me on, Carry me on.
After a month or two, I was doing more things right in the house, but even Miss Sarah didn’t know some nights I left my post by her door and watched the water all night long, the way it broke silver from the moon. The stars shining big as platters. I could see clean to Sullivan’s Island. I pined for mauma when it was dark. I missed our bed. I missed the quilt frame guarding over us. I pictured mauma sewing quilts by herself. I would think about the gunny sack stuffed with feathers, the red pouch with our pins and needles, my pure brass thimble. Nights like that, I hightailed it back to the stable room.
Every time mauma woke and found me in bed with her, she had a fit, saying all the trouble there would be if I got caught, how I already lived too far out on missus’ bad side.
“Ain’t nothin’ good gon come from you wandering off like this,” she said. “You got to stay put on your quilt. You do that for me, you hear me?”
And I’d do it for her. Least for a few days. I’d lay on the floor in the hall, trying to stay warm in the draft, twisting round in search of the softest floorboard. I could make do with that misery and take my solace from the water.
On a bleary morning in March, four months after the calamity of my eleventh birthday, I woke to find Hetty missing, her pallet on the floor outside my room crumpled with the outline of her small body. By now, she would’ve been filling my basin with water and telling me some story or other. It surprised me that I felt her absence personally. I missed her as I would a fond companion, but I fretted for her, too. Mother had already taken her cane to Hetty once.
Finding no trace of her in the house, I stood on the top step by the back door, scanning the work yard. A thin haze had drifted in from the harbor, and overhead the sun glinted through it with the dull gold of a pocket watch. Snow was in the door of the carriage house, repairing one of the breeching straps. Aunt-Sister straddled a stool by the vegetable garden, scaling fish. Not wishing to rouse her suspicions, I ambled to the porch of the kitchen house where Tomfry was handing out supplies. Soap to Eli for washing the marble steps, two Osnaburg towels to Phoebe for cleaning crystal, a coal scoop to Sabe for re-supplying the scuttles.
As I waited for him to finish, I let my eyes drift to the oak in the back left corner. Its branches were adorned with tight buds, and though the tree bore little resemblance to its summer visage, the memory of that long-ago day returned: sitting straddle-legged on the ground, the hot stillness, the green-skinned shade, arranging my words with marbles, Sarah Go—
I looked away to the opposite side of the yard, and it was there I saw Hetty’s mother, Charlotte, walking beside the woodpile, bending now and then to pick up something from the ground.
Arriving behind her unseen, I noticed the tidbits she scavenged were small, downy feathers. “. . . . . . Charlotte—”
She jumped and the feather between her fingers fluttered off on the sea wind. It flitted to the top of the high brick wall that enclosed the yard, snagging in the creeping fig.
“Miss Sarah!” she said. “You scared the jimminies out of me.” Her laugh was high-pitched and fragile with nerves. Her eyes darted toward the stable.
“. . . . . . I didn’t mean to startle you . . . I only wondered, do you know where—”
She cut me off, and pointed into the woodpile. “Look way down ’n there.”
Peering into a berth between two pieces of wood, I came face to face with a pointy-eared brown creature covered with fuzz. Only slightly bigger than a hen’s chick, it was an owl of some sort. I drew back as its yellow eyes blinked and bore into me.
Charlotte laughed again, this time more naturally. “It ain’t gon bite.”
“. . . . . . It’s a baby.”
“I came on it a few nights back. Poor thing on the ground, crying.”
“. . . . . . Was it . . . hurt?”
“Naw, just left behind is all. Its mauma’s a barn owl. Took up in a crow’s nest in the shed, but she left. I’m ’fraid something got her. I been feeding the baby scraps.”
My only liaisons with Charlotte had been dress fittings, but I’d always detected a keenness in her. Of all the slaves Father owned, she struck me as the most intelligent, and perhaps the most dangerous, which would turn out to be true enough.
“. . . . . . I’ll be kind to Hetty,” I said abruptly. The words—remorseful and lordly—came out as if some pustule of guilt had disgorged.
Her eyes flashed open, then narrowed into small burrs. They were honey colored, the same as Hetty’s.
“. . . . . . I never meant to own her . . . I tried to free her, but . . . I wasn’t allowed.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
Charlotte slid her hand into her apron pocket, and silence welled unbearably. She’d seen my guilt and she used it with cunning. “That’s awright,” she said. “Cause I know you gon make that up to her one these days.”
The letter M clamped on to my tongue with its little jaws. “. . . . . . . . . M-m-make it up?”
“I mean, I know you gon hep her any way you can to get free.”
“. . . . . . Yes, I’ll try,” I said.
“What I need is you swearing to it.”
I nodded, hardly understanding that I’d been deftly guided into a covenant.
“You keep your word,” she said. “I know you will.”
Remembering why I’d approached her in the first place, I said, “. . . I’ve been unable to find—”
“Handful gon be at your door ’fore you know it.”
Walking back to the house, I felt the noose of that strange and intimate exchange pull into a knot.
Hetty appeared in my room ten minutes later, her eyes dominating her small face, fierce as the little owl’s. Seated at my desk, I’d only just opened a book I’d borrowed from Father’s library, The Adventures of Telemachus. Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus, was setting out to Troy to find his father. Without questioning her earlier whereabouts, I began to read aloud. Hetty plopped onto the bed-steps that led to the mattress, rested her chin in the cup of her hands, and listened through the morning as Telemachus took on the hostilities of the ancient world.
Wily Charlotte. As March passed, I thought obsessively about the promise she’d wrung from me. Why hadn’t I told her Hetty’s freedom was impossible? That the most I could ever offer her was kindness?
When it came time to sew my Easter dress, I cringed to think of seeing her again, petrified she would bring up our conversation by the woodpile. I would rather have impaled myself with a needle than endured more of her scrutiny.
“I don’t need a new dress this Easter,” I told Mother.
A week later, I stood on the fitting box, wearing a half-sewn satin dress. On entering my room, Charlotte had hastened Hetty off on some contrived mission before I could think of a way to override her. The dress was a light shade of cinnamon, remarkably similar to the tone of Charlotte’s skin, a likeness I noted as she stood before me with three straight pins wedged between her lips. When she spoke, I smelled coffee beans, and knew she’d been chewing them. Her words squeezed out around the pins in twisted curls of sounds. “You gon keep that word you gave me?”
To my disgrace, I used my impediment to my advantage, struggling more than necessary to answer her, pretending the words fell back into the dark chute of my throat and disappeared.
On the first good Saturday, when it looked like spring was staying put this time, missus took Miss Sarah, Miss Mary, and Miss Anna off in the carriage with the lanterns on it. Aunt-Sister said they were going to White Point to promenade, said all the women and girls would be out with their parasols.
When Snow drove the carriage out the back gate, Miss Sarah waved, and Sabe, who was dandied up in a green frock coat and livery vest, was hanging off the back, grinning.
Aunt-Sister said to us, “What yawl looking at? Get to work cleaning, a full spit and shine on their rooms. Make hay while the mice away.”
Up in Miss Sarah’s room, I spread the bed and scrubbed the gloom on the looking glass that wouldn’t come off with any kind of ash-water. I swept up dead moths fat from gnawing on the curtains, wiped down the privy pot, and threw in a pinch of soda. I scrubbed the floors with lime soap from the demijohn.
Wore out from all that, I did what we call shilly-shally. Poking round up to no good. First, I looked to see was any slave in the passage way—some of them would as soon tell on you as blink. I shut the door and opened Miss Sarah’s books. I sat at her desk and turned one page after another, staring at what looked like bits and pieces of black lace laid cross the paper. The marks had a beauty to them, but I didn’t see how they could do anything but confuddle a person.
I pulled out the desk drawer and rooted all through her things. I found a piece of unfinished cross stitch with clumsy stitches, looked like a three-year-old had done it. There was some fine, glossy threads in the drawer wrapped on wood spools. Sealing wax. Tan paper. Little drawings with ink smudges. A long brass key with a tassel on it.
I went through the wardrobe, touching the frocks mauma’d made. I nosed through the dressing table drawer, pulling out jewelry, hair ribbons, paper fans, bottles and brushes, and finally, a little box. It glistened dark like my skin when it was wet. I pushed up the latch. Inside was a big silver button. I touched it, then closed the lid the same slow way I’d closed her wardrobe, her drawers, and her books—with my chest filling up. There was so much in the world to be had and not had.
I went back and opened up the desk drawer one more time and stared at the threads. What I did next was wrong, but I didn’t much care. I took the plump spool of scarlet thread and dropped it in my dress pocket.
The Saturday before Easter we all got sent to the dining room. Tomfry said things had gone missing in the house. I went in there thinking, Lord, help me.
There wasn’t nothing worse for us than some little old piece of nonsense disappearing. One dent-up tin cup in the pantry or a toast crumb off missus’ plate and the feathers flew. But this time it wasn’t a piece of nonsense, and it wasn’t scarlet thread. It was missus’ brand new bolt of green silk cloth.
There we were, fourteen of us, lined up while missus carried on about it. She said the silk was special, how it traveled from the other side of the world, how these worms in China had spun the threads. Back then, I’d never heard such craziness in my life.
Every one of us was sweating and twitching, running our hands in our britches pockets or up under our aprons. I could smell the odors off our bodies, which was nothing but fear.
Mauma knew everything happening out there over the wall—missus gave her passes to travel to the market by herself. She tried to keep the bad parts from me, but I knew about the torture house on Magazine Street. The white folks called it the Work House. Like the slaves were in there sewing clothes and making bricks and hammering horseshoes. I knew about it before I was eight, the dark hole they put you in and left you by yourself for weeks. I knew about the whippings. Twenty lashes was the limit you could get. A white man could buy a bout of floggings for half a dollar and use them whenever he needed to put some slave in the right frame of mind.
Far as I knew, not one Grimké slave had gone to the Work House, but that morning, every one of us in the dining room was wondering is this the day.
“One of you is guilty of thieving. If you return the bolt of cloth, which is what God would have you do, then I will be forgiving.”
Missus didn’t think we had a grain of sense.
What were any of us gonna do with emerald silk?
The night after the cloth vanished, I slipped out. Walked straight out the door. I had to pass by Cindie outside missus’ door—she was no friend to mauma, and I had to be wary round her, but she was snoring away. I slid into bed next to mauma, only she wasn’t in bed this time, she was standing in the corner with her arms folded over her chest. She said, “What you think you doing?”
I never had heard that tone to her voice.
“Get up, we going back to the house right now. This the last time you sneaking out, the last time. This ain’t no game, Handful. There be misery to pay on this.”
She didn’t wait for me to move, but snatched me up like I was a stray piece of batting. Grabbed me under one arm, marched me down the carriage house steps, cross the work yard. My feet didn’t hardly touch the ground. She dragged me inside through the warming kitchen, the door nobody locked. Her finger rested against her lips, warning me to stay quiet, then she tugged me to the staircase and nodded her head toward the top. Go on now.
Those stair steps made a racket. I didn’t get ten steps when I heard a door open down below, and the air suck from mauma’s throat.
Master’s voice came out of the dark, saying, “Who is it? Who is there?”
Lamplight shot cross the walls. Mauma didn’t move.
“Charlotte?” he said, calm as could be. “What are you doing in here?”
Behind her back, mauma made a sign with her hand, waving at the floor, and I knew she meant me to crouch low on the steps. “Nothing, massa Grimké. Nothing, sir.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for The Invention of Wings
“A remarkable novel that heightened my sense of what it meant to be a woman - slave or free. . .will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to find her power and her voice. . .Sue Monk Kidd has written a conversation changer. It is impossible to read this book and not come away thinking differently about our status as women and about all the unsung heroines who played a role in getting us to where we are."—Oprah Winfrey, O The Oprah Magazine
“A searing historical novel. . .these two women’s relationship with each other grows more complex while the culture shape-shifts around them. Their bold individual requests for independence are explored by Kidd in exquisitely nuanced language that makes this book a page turner in the most resonant and satisfying of ways.”—More
“Kidd hits her stride and avoids sentimental revisionism with this historical novel about the relationship between a slave and the daughter of slave owners in antebellum Charleston...Kidd’s portrait of white slave-owning southerners is all the more harrowing for showing them as morally complicated while she gives Handful the dignity of being not simply a victim, but a strong, imperfect woman.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A moving portrait of two women inextricably linked by the horrors of slavery…Kidd is a master storyteller, and, with smooth and graceful prose, she immerses the reader in the lives of these fascinating women as they navigate religion, family drama, slave revolts, and the abolitionist movement.” —ALA Booklist
“Monk’s compelling work of historical fiction stands out from the rest because of its layers of imaginative details in the lives of actual abolitionists…This richly imagined narrative brings both black history and women’s history to life.” —Library Journal