|St. Martin's Publishing Group
About the Author
MARLEN SUYAPA BODDEN is a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society, the nation's oldest and largest law firm for the poor, in New York City. She drew on her knowledge of modern and historical slavery, human trafficking, and human rights abuses to write The Wedding Gift, her first novel.
MARLEN SUYAPA BODDEN is a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the nation’s oldest and largest law firm for the poor. She drew on her knowledge of modern and historical slavery, human trafficking, and human rights abuses to write The Wedding Gift, her first novel. Marlen is a graduate of New York University School of Law and Tufts University. In 2012, the University of Rhode Island awarded Marlen an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
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The Wedding Gift
By Marlen Suyapa Bodden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Marlen Suyapa Bodden
All rights reserved.
This chronicle commences with the monarchs of my heart: my mother, the woman who gave me light, and my sister, to whom I clung in dire times. Both were beautiful, with delicate features and dark skin. I, however, am big-boned and, as the Alabama newspapers described me, "yellowish." Except for her yellow hair and blue eyes, I look more like my other sister, to whom I was given when she married, Clarissa Allen, the daughter of the master of the plantation and his wife, Theodora. Like Clarissa, and the man who fathered us, I am tall, have dimples, a pointy nose, and meager lips. I do not know precisely how old I was when I realized that I was a slave, but I think that I was six, the year I began helping with cooking, cleaning, and all that we had to do in the Allen household.
One morning, when we were still sleeping, someone knocked on the door of our cabin. My mother rose and wrapped herself in a shawl, telling us to do the same and to sit at the table. When she opened the door, two men were standing outside, holding lanterns and guns. I trembled, and Belle firmly held my hand.
"Why they here, Mama?"
"Shush, baby. Don't say nothing."
"Your key," one man said.
"Yes, sir," my mother said.
My eyes were sensitive to the light from their lanterns. I heard them walk everywhere, near the beds, cabinets, and in the kitchen area. One of the men had a persistent cough. Their rancid smell permeated the cabin. The lock clicked and the lid creaked when they opened the chest where my mother kept some of the money that she earned from trading baked goods, quilts, and dried cooking herbs in town.
When they were gone, my mother sat at the table and put her arm around me. She was shaking.
"Why those men come here, Mama?"
"Mr. Allen tell them to."
"But why, Mama, why?"
"Stop asking questions, Sarah. He tell them to and nobody got to tell us why or nothing else."
One afternoon, I filled two pails at the well behind the kitchen. Two boys, about my age, were there playing with clay marbles, when an overseer approached.
"What you little niggers doing?"
They did not answer him.
"You hear me, you black bastards?"
The boys continued to ignore him.
"You fucking niggers say something when I talk to you."
He used his whip to strike one boy in the arm and the other on the leg and then kicked each one, knocking him to the ground, and the boys and I screamed. I dropped my buckets, spilling water. I heard people running and my mother's voice rising above the clamor saying that she was coming to me.
She told someone to take the boys to our cabin. She kissed me and carried me home, but when she tried to put me on our bed, I grasped the sleeve of her dress.
"Sarah, baby, you going to be all right. Stay here. Let me go look after the children."
The boys were crying.
"Your mama's going to be here soon. Now let me see how bad you is hurt," she said to them. "I'm going to clean and put something on your cuts so they can heal. It's going to sting a bit, but you all is big boys and I know you going to be strong."
When the boys' mother arrived, I recognized her voice. She was one of the washerwomen for Allen Hall.
"Miss Emmeline, thank you for looking after my boys. Thank God you was there and that man didn't do no worse to them."
"You're welcome, but that's what we got to do. We got to look after each other's children, and I know you do the same for my girls. You let me know if they ain't better soon."
The washerwoman took her boys home. I felt calmer by that time, but my sight was blurred. My mother said that I should stay in bed and rest.
"Sarah, I got to get back to the kitchen so I can finish making supper. Let me wash you up first. All right, baby?"
"No, Mama. Don't leave me here by myself. What if that man is out there? And why he hit those boys?"
"Mr. Allen ain't going to like it when he hear what he did. But Sarah, listen, you always got to do what the overseers tell you. You got to obey them the same way we obey Mr. and Mrs. Allen. You understand me?"
"Yes, ma'am. But I'm scared of that man. What if he come back?"
"I'm going to be looking out for you, baby, and ain't letting you go no place by yourself until you is older. Baby, you know I can see our cabin from the kitchen, and I'll watch to make sure nobody come inside. And Belle and me going to come here to see you every so often."
That year, I began listening to the pastor who had a service in the kitchen for the Hall slaves and their families on Sunday mornings. We did not attend church with the Allens in town because we had to prepare dinner. The field hands and tradespeople had their own house of worship on the plantation. After his sermon, the preacher spoke to us about the slave laws and our activities off the plantation.
One afternoon in the wintertime, after the Allens and their guests had their dinner, my mother took Belle and me into town to purchase goods for the Hall. An overseer met us at the gate before we left and gave the wagon driver a traveling pass.
As I had noticed when we were walking in town on prior occasions, men stopped to stare at my mother. She did not pause and looked straight ahead. That day, we went to different shops to retrieve items that the merchants had ordered from abroad for the Allens and dried cooking herbs from the Indies for my mother. At six o'clock, the driver met us at the last shop to help us with the packages.
"Johnny, I got something else to do. Please wait for us here."
Johnny gave my mother a lantern, and as we were walking toward a side road, I heard people yelling and saw them running to the square in the center of town. My mother held my hand and steered us back to the wagon. I heard someone scream, and she told me to move faster.
"Mister, please, let us go. We wasn't doing nothing wrong. We was just talking. Please don't whip us," one man said.
"Shut your mouths and take your turns on the post. You keep arguing, and you going to get more lashes."
"Please, mister, don't. I won't do it again. We was just talking."
"I hear one more thing from any of you, and you're each getting the full thirty lashes."
"Sarah, stop. Not one word. I'll tell you what that's about later. Now we just got to get out of here."
We were silent all the way to Allen Estates. When we arrived at our cabin, my mother told me that the people I saw about to be whipped in town were being punished because they had done something that the preacher warned us about on Sundays.
"Sarah, some people in town was talking in a group. I'm only telling you this so you know not to do the same thing when you're older. If the patrollers see a group of slaves without a overseer to watch them, the patrollers can whip every one of them."
Around this time, I observed other aspects of my life and the people at Allen Hall that troubled my young head. Clarissa, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Allen, had a sixth year birthday celebration that began on a Thursday and ended Sunday night. There were about thirty guests, including her paternal family from Montgomery and Macon counties and neighboring planters and their families. My mother cooked all the meals and made Clarissa's cake.
When we were alone, I asked my mother about my birthday.
"You remember when I made that cake for you a little while back, and we and the others had it after supper in the kitchen, don't you?"
"But you didn't sing to me, and you didn't say it was my birthday."
"I know, baby, but it was. Mr. Allen said he wrote it down in his book where he write all the babies' birthdays."
"When is my birthday?"
"Mr. Allen said it's June 25. But you keep that just between us, all right, baby? And don't tell the other children. Not everybody know their birthdays. I know mines and Belle's because Mr. Allen's father wrote them down and Mr. Allen told me."
When the Allen relatives visited the plantation, I was not Clarissa's playmate, as I was when no one else was around, but her maid; and when she spoke to me, it was to give me orders. During one of these visits, while we were in our cabin one night and I was sitting on my mother's lap, I asked her about her family, who they were and where they might be.
"Baby, it ain't something I like to talk about, no, but I know everybody want to know where they come from. Only God know where all my kin is, if they is living or is not. They get sold, Mommy tell me, and she say it's because our people was the kind that was always making trouble for the overseers and trying to run away, and Master Allen's father sell them off, a long time ago. Mommy tell me right before she die that it ain't no use trying to make things right on this earth. She was right, it really ain't no use. Sarah, that's why I'm always telling you that you got to obey Master and Mrs. Allen and all the overseers. If anybody make trouble and don't work or try to run, they get sold off and don't nobody got to tell us where they go and we sure ain't never going to see them again. Girl, you know I ain't got a single sister, brother, cousin, aunt, or uncle that I know where they is, nobody, nobody but you and Belle. That's all I got left on earth."
She held me closer. Belle was silent, sitting across from us at the table. I asked Mama if she knew what happened to her parents and brothers and sisters.
"Don't know about my pa, where he at, because he got sold. I remember when I was little, at night in our cabin, and Mommy and Pa think me and my brothers and sisters was sleeping, many times Mommy and Pa used to talk real soft, and Pa told Mommy he was going to run. Mommy cry and say no, because she was scared, but Pa say he was going to do it and find a way to get all of us out, he say there was people that can help him run and can help get the rest of the family out, too. Mommy, oh, my poor mother, we bury her after the overseer beat her so bad after she step in to try to keep him from beating Pa when they catch him after he ran. We bury Mommy at the graves by the fields."
My mother poured us water from the pitcher and cut us each a slice of cake. We were silent as we ate, and when we finished the cake my mother resumed telling us about our family.
"After Mommy die, Master Allen's father sold my three sisters and two brothers, who know where to, and left me to live with one of the granny women who take care of the little children of the mothers that work in the Hall. I was only about ten years old then and old Master Allen told the cook to teach me how to cook. The granny woman, Miss Thomasina, she always took good care of me, even after I was grown, but she died a few months after Belle was born."
She kissed me on the top of my head before she continued.
"If you want, on Sunday, I'll take the two of you to the graves where they bury us. I ain't been there in many years, it's hard because the last time I went was when I was pregnant with Belle and all I did was cry the rest of the day."
Later that week, my mother, assuming that the wooden cross on my grandmother's grave had disintegrated over the years, asked a carpenter to make her a cross, and she borrowed a large shovel from a gardener. That next Sunday, after the preacher read us the Bible and we made dinner, Mama, carrying the cross, took Belle, who carried the shovel, and me to the area where, I learned, the Allen slaves were buried. This was my first time at the graves for the slaves, but I was familiar with the cemetery where some of the Allens were buried, in an area enclosed with wrought-iron fences, because we passed it on our way to the fields. Their graves were marked with ornate crosses carved from stone. I was eager to know about the graves where the slaves were buried, but my curiosity was tempered by Mama's sadness. She was holding my hand tightly, and as we approached the graves, she released my hand to remove a handkerchief from her apron pocket and wipe tears from her face. I was comforted that Belle was with us because she joined me in consoling our mother, Belle by putting her arm around Mama's shoulder and I by kissing Mama's hand.
The slaves' burial ground was not a cemetery such as those one sees nowadays; it was simply open, rough land where nothing but weeds grew. We could only tell where the graves were located by the wooden crosses atop mounds of soil. We were the only ones there that day, and we dug in different places trying to find my grandmother's coffin, which, my mother said, had a carved rose, my grandmother's favorite flower. We never found a coffin with a rose. Belle and I did not cry until we found a clump of hair, which we reburied, because my mother said if that was all that remained of a person, even if we did not know whose hair it was, the Lord would want us to honor it as if it were the person's body. We said a prayer and thanked the Lord for our lives after we placed the wooden cross on top of the soil over where we buried that clump of hair.
My mother held Belle and me as we returned to Allen Hall. The sadness I felt after I learned how Mr. Allen's father treated my grandparents and our other kin in life and death made me fearful whenever our mother left Belle and me in our cabin at night. It also made me believe, for the first time, that if I asked my mother, she would agree we should leave the Allen plantation.
That year, when I was about six years old, I watched Mrs. Allen and Clarissa when they were together. When Clarissa sat on her mother's lap or embraced her, I was envious because my mother worked the entire day and most nights she was away from our cabin. I missed her when she was not with us and could not sleep until she returned, always before dawn. The mornings after she left, when her eyes met mine, she seemed ashamed, and that made me miserable.
Once, when we were having our breakfast, she seemed preoccupied. I tickled her under her chin, which normally made her laugh. This time, however, she barely smiled. I asked her why she was so sad.
"I'm just tired, is all, baby. Just tired."
I asked her why we could not go where she would not have to work so hard, and she spoke to me in a fierce voice.
"Don't you ever, ever talk about that again, and you listen to me good. Just talking like that can get us sold. You know what it mean to be sold? It mean they send us to different places, and we ain't never going to see each other again. Maybe you think just because Mrs. Allen let you play with Miss Clarissa all the time that you're just like her, but you ain't nothing like Miss Clarissa. She can say what she want. You got to watch every thing you say. And don't you forget, we is all we got."
I wanted my mother to stop going away; I was afraid that she would not come back. One night, I held on to her.
"Don't go, Mama, don't go."
She smoothed my hair.
"Say you won't go, Mama. Say you won't go."
"Sarah, I got to, baby."
I do not remember how many weeks elapsed before she finally tired of my attempts to prevent her from leaving.
"Belle's right here with you. Come on, Sarah, stop it."
She handed me over to Belle, who folded me in her long arms. I gave my mother a foul look. "I hate you, I hate you. Go, and I don't care if you never come back."
She sat on the bed and cried. I buried my face in the pillow. After some time, I heard her walk across the cabin floor and close the door behind her.
The battle between us continued, but I learned to wound her with silent reproach. One evening, after our prayers, I asked her why she had to leave us. She spoke in a gentle voice.
"Sarah, you too young for me to say what I'm about to tell you, but you need to hear it. You and Belle is smart girls. I been blessed that way. I was hoping to have this talk with you when you was grown. But in this life, we got to be older than our real years.
"I'm going to tell you something that you can't repeat to nobody, not even Miss Clarissa. You're going to have to promise me before I tell you."
"I promise. I'll be a big girl and I won't tell."
"Sarah, I go to ... I go to ... Mr. Allen. That's where I go at night."
"Because he say I got to."
"Why do you have to?"
"I already told you. We got to do everything him and Mrs. Allen, the overseers, and even Miss Clarissa say."
"We ... we belong to Mr. and Mrs. Allen."
"What do you mean?"
Excerpted from The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden. Copyright © 2013 Marlen Suyapa Bodden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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