A fast-paced, harrowing, and essential read, this sweeping novel is the type of beautifully written fiction that stays with you for years. Well-researched by author Sadeqa Johnson and featuring a stunning depth of character and engrossing descriptions, The Yellow Wife is a can't-miss, powerful epic.
Called “wholly engrossing” by New York Times bestselling author Kathleen Grissom, this “fully immersive” (Lisa Wingate, #1 bestselling author of Before We Were Yours) story follows an enslaved woman forced to barter love and freedom while living in the most infamous slave jail in Virginia.
Born on a plantation in Charles City, Virginia, Pheby Delores Brown has lived a relatively sheltered life. Shielded by her mother’s position as the estate’s medicine woman and cherished by the Master’s sister, she is set apart from the others on the plantation, belonging to neither world.
She’d been promised freedom on her eighteenth birthday, but instead of the idyllic life she imagined with her true love, Essex Henry, Pheby is forced to leave the only home she has ever known. She unexpectedly finds herself thrust into the bowels of slavery at the infamous Devil’s Half Acre, a jail in Richmond, Virginia, where the enslaved are broken, tortured, and sold every day. There, Pheby is exposed not just to her Jailer’s cruelty but also to his contradictions. To survive, Pheby will have to outwit him, and she soon faces the ultimate sacrifice.
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Chapter 1: The Bell Plantation
Mama believed that the full moon was the most fertile night of the month, and that everything she touched held God’s power. Each full moon, she dragged me out in the middle of the night with her to hunt for roots, plants, seedlings, and rare blossoms to use for healing. I did not understand why God’s power could not be found during daylight hours, and as I trudged behind her the March cold overwhelmed me. Even my thick wool shawl was no match against the country freeze.
Fear of the woods made my feet clumsy, and I tripped over fallen sticks, scratched my shins on the spiky brush, and bumped my head on low-hanging branches. Mama, on the other hand, moved with skill and confidence, like the earth parted a path and presented the way for her. Even in the dark, she knew where to stop for herbs and how to avoid the dangerous ones. We had only a small lantern to guide us, and when I asked how she knew where things grew she responded, “My gut be my light.”
We slipped through the thicket, past the drafty cabins where the field hands slept on pallets stuffed with hay and husk. I heard dry coughs and a low whine from a hungry baby. Farther down toward the James River, we traveled through the clearing where we met on Sundays for church. Then over the hill along the side of the cemetery, peppered with sticks to honor our dead. As we traveled deeper into the woods of the plantation, the thick forest blocked the light of the moon. I could hear the growls and grunts of unseen animals, and fretted over running into hungry raccoons or red foxes, or stepping on a poisonous snake. I tried to clear the worry from my mind as the land flattened out, but then something pricked my ankle. Before I could call out, Mama stopped suddenly and reached for my hand.
“This here is a black walnut tree. Grow deep in the woods, so you gotta know where to look. Cure for most everything. Ever unsure, come seek this tree.”
Mama handed me the lantern, then pulled a blade from her satchel and severed a piece of bark. She brought it to her nose, then ran her tongue along the inside of it.
“Husk stain anything it touch. After we make a tea for Rachel, rest we use to dye those sheets for the nursery. Just hoping we ain’t too late to save that girl.”
Mama reached into her bag and pulled out a red ribbon. “Go on and mark it, so be easy to find when you come without me.”
I reached up and tied the ribbon on a skinny twig, knowing I had no intention of roaming these woods without my mama.
We stopped at the sick house on our way back home. That morning, Rachel, the house servant, had been moved from the big house to the sickroom on account of her high fever. Even though Master Jacob’s wife, Missus Delphina, knew Mama worked plants better than anybody, she refused to bring her up to the house to tend to Rachel when she got fevered with lockjaw. Rachel grew up on Missus Delphina’s family’s plantation, and came with her to Master Jacob’s as a wedding gift from her mother. Since Missus Delphina looked down on Mama’s medicine, she called in a white doctor for Rachel, which Mama said was a waste of good money. “He ain’t know nothin’ ’bout doctoring no field hands.”
And Mama was right. Now that the white medicine had failed, Missus Delphina had no choice but to moved Rachel to the sick house. When we entered the room, even I could look at Rachel’s pale body and see death coming for her.
“You ready the hot water?” Mama asked the sick nurse, who nodded her head and pointed to the boiling pot. Mama reached into her sack and pulled out the bark and leaves from the black walnut tree. Then she pinched off a sprig of snakeroot and crushed up the stems.
“Let it steep for ’bout an hour. Then make her sip every time she open her eyes. If she make it through the night, there be hope.”
Mama removed a few balms and poultices from her medicine satchel for the other patients, then gently pressed Rachel’s forehead with the palm of her hand and whispered, “Lawd, look on Rachel with eyes of mercy. Restore her to wholeness and strength. Thy will be done.”
Few hours later, Mama and I were snuggled in our cottony bed, draped in heavy linens, when we were awakened by the ringing of the plantation bell.
“Oh, Lawd, what is it now?” Mama kept her eyes on me.
There was cause for each chime of the bell, and on that morning the bell rang twice. Two rings meant that Master Jacob wanted to see us for an announcement on the side of the big house.
I burrowed deeper into the blankets and mumbled, “Hope it is not Rachel.”
Mama’s face went slack. “Come, Delores. Needin’ to move directly.” She always called me by my middle name. Her way of claiming me as her own, I guess.
The fire had died out in the middle of the night, so the cold bled right through my woolen socks as soon as they hit the floor. Mama tied the back of her skirt while slipping into her leather shoes. Even in haste, she did not leave the house without oiling her molasses-colored skin with palm oil and pinning her thick hair just right. I fumbled around in the covers but could not produce my headscarf. Mama cut her eyes up at me as she descended the ladder, so I moved on without it.
I followed, barely awake in the predawn cold, up the bluff to the big house. Even at first light, I could smell onions, garlic, and butter wafting up from the kitchen house. Mama strode several paces in front of me, and I almost tripped over my own feet trying to catch her.
A rustling of leaves sprang from the woods, and then out of the thicket came a long procession of scantily dressed field hands. Mothers had babies tied to their backs, old people leaned on makeshift canes, and strong men carried little children on their shoulders. I fell in step with Mama as we rounded the side of the house, hoping to catch sight of Essex coming out the stables. Just a glance from him could change up my whole day. As I scanned the crowd, Mama squeezed my hand and pulled me on up front where we, as seamstresses, belonged. Aunt Hope, the plantation cook, stood nearest to the steps, and next to her was Lovie, the keeper of the house. Next to Lovie was Parrott: butler, driver, and manservant to Master Jacob. Women and children of the fields stood behind them. The men always had to stand farthest back from the house. Snitch, the plantation overseer, stood to the side of us with a cowhide whip around his neck, and his bloodshot eyes watching all of us.
When I got still, a warm breath broke across the back of my neck. Only Essex would be so bold, and I reached my left hand back and grazed his fingertips. It had been days since we touched, and I pulled away quickly as little shock waves surged across my belly.
Missus Delphina appeared on the side porch with a black scarf draped over her shoulders. Before I could wonder after Master Jacob, he came through the door wearing a flared frock coat with a high stand-up collar. He drew himself up to his full six-foot height, and the sun caught the honey streaks in his eyes as he looked down on us. I watched his Adam’s apple bob around in his neck as he spoke; a habit that helped me avoid looking him in the eye when other people were around.
“It pains me to announce that our sweet servant, Rachel, has gone to be with her maker. May she rest in peace.”
Missus Delphina leaned into his solid mass as if he was a pillar, and without his strength she would faint. The crowd gasped and a few called on Jesus, but Mama just sucked air through her two front teeth. Not loud, but I heard, and knew that it meant Missus was a fool for not calling on her sooner.
“Keep us in your prayers as you return to work.”
Sounds of compliance stirred through the crowd, as the field hands started back down the hill, taking with them the smell of wet soil and manure. Master grabbed two women and instructed them to take care of Rachel’s body. Then he looked over at me.
“Pheby. Need you up at the house now that Rachel is gone.”
“Pheby?” Missus Delphina smacked her lips like she had been fed something sour. “I have her sewing sheets for the nursery. She fares better in the loom house.”
“The girl knows her way around and can fill in just fine.” Master Jacob pulled her close, smothering away any fight.
I looked down at my feet. On the few occasions I’d helped in the big house the strenuous work had been taxing enough. Now, to be holed up with Missus Delphina while she mourned her dearest Rachel would be like having a noose around my neck. My head started to throb as I climbed the steps, then from the corner of my eye I found Essex brazenly staring at me.
He was leaning against the silver birch tree, a piece of straw hanging from the side of his mouth. He brushed his nose twice, which was code for Meet me in the stables after dark. I scratched my ear as an answer—I will try—then put an extra drop in my hips as I pushed open the side door of the house. The entrance led into a small prep area just before the dining room. I started hatching a plan on how to get out tonight without anyone asking too many questions when, out of nowhere, a heavy slap landed across my face. My sight went blurry. When I refocused, Missus Delphina flared her nostrils at me.
“Do not come in here running amok. You better take heed or you will find yourself in the fields.”
“Yes, Missus.” It took full concentration not to touch the spot she had slapped. I refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing how much she had hurt me.
“And where is your scarf? Think you too pretty to tie up that hair?” She flicked my pinned-up hair and knocked it free. Waves of soft spirals flowed down past my shoulders. Missus eyed me like she wanted to slap me again, and I hurried to twirl my hair back up and tuck it away.
Her mouth turned down and rested in her perpetual frown. Missus Delphina was more handsome than pretty—a box-shaped woman with big, broad shoulders and startling green eyes that could cut through skin. She tended to favor the color brown, though it made her look much older than her twenty-four years. I thought she would look prettier in a shade of peach or plum.
“Lovie,” she called to the woman who was in charge up at the house, “see that this girl looks proper and get her started cleaning the bedrooms.”
“Yes, Missus.” Lovie curtseyed, and I forced my knees to do the same.
The back stairs were hidden behind the dining room, which made it easy for the house servants to move around undetected. The steps were narrow and steep, but Lovie moved up them fast and certain. Out in the hallway, the upstairs rooms were strung together in the shape of a horseshoe. At the lip of the formal stairs hung a portrait of Master’s sister, Miss Sally. She had been my teacher before she died two years ago, and adored me as much as my own mama. I stopped and stared at her thin fingers resting calmly on her lap, remembering how graceful they were on the piano. Her doe eyes fell kindly on me. My swollen cheek burned as I traced the gold frame with my fingertips.
The portrait used to hang in the parlor, until Missus Delphina arrived and had it moved up here. She also ordered Miss Sally’s clothing, favorite curtains, tea set, and anything else that belonged to her packed in boxes and donated to a church on the edge of town. Once Master Jacob became wise to his wife cleaning house, he prohibited her from removing his sister’s book collection and piano from the parlor. Then, while he and Missus attended the white church on Sunday, he had four of the field hands bring Miss Sally’s bed over to the loom house for me and Mama.
“Pheby.” Lovie snapped her fingers, beckoning me out of my head, and into Missus’s chambers. The bedroom had a musky smell, like Missus had sprayed too many potions and fragrances. Lovie drew back the heavy, rose-embellished curtains and pushed open the window. The fresh air made it easier to breathe.
“Needin’ a thorough clean. Been let go since Rachel down.”
Lovie moved next to me, grasped my chin, and tilted it up. Her eyes were deep-set and gentle. She had a heart-shaped face, and skin rich as coffee.
“Problem with being high yella. That handprint gonna be on your face all day long. I try to slip you some ice.”
She smoothed the loose strands of my hair back into my ponytail and then covered my head with a dull, itchy scarf.
“Be in Massa’s room if you needin’ me,” Lovie called over her shoulder, then closed the door.
Missus Delphina’s room was as large as the loft in the loom house that I shared with Mama. High ceilings and wide-plank floors. Adjacent to the bed sat a rosewood vanity, and I ran my hands over the floral carvings around the mirror. I listened for footsteps in the hallway and then let myself down on the matching stool. The mirror confirmed Lovie’s prediction. I had three fingerprints marking my cheekbone. Mama would be beside herself.
Before I thought it through, I undid the rag on my head, unraveled my hair, and absentmindedly picked up Missus Delphina’s brush. I glided the strong bristles across my scalp and down to the end of my curls. Missus’s brush worked much better than the wire comb Mama and I used. With a little rouge and a proper gown, I could fit in like a member of the family.
I remembered the time Miss Sally had taken me with her on a carriage ride to Williamsburg. She and Mama fawned over my dress and hair until I did not recognize myself in the looking glass. When we arrived at the first shop, the shoemaker referred to me as Miss Sally’s beautiful daughter, and she did not correct him. Nor did she right the seamstress at the dress shop, or the woman who served us tea. The memory made me smile, as I missed my teacher dearly.
The sound of the bedroom door scraping the floor sent me scrambling to my feet so fast I knocked the silver-plated box filled with hairpins to the floor.
“You thick in the mind?” Lovie hissed at me. “What if I’s the missus?”
“Sorry,” I fumbled.
“At seventeen, I expects more from you, Pheby.”
“Just lost my head.”
“Finish in here, and no more foolishness.” She disappeared back down the hall.
Having idled long enough, I retied my hair and figured it would be best to start with sweeping the ashes from the fireplace and work my way around from there. Then I picked up the broomstick and beat the mattress and pillows until I was satisfied that there were no dust mites or bugs hiding out. Missus kept a porcelain pitcher on a washstand in the back corner, which she used to freshen up between weekly baths. I slushed it clean and hung fresh white towels on the side rail for her convenience. My least favorite chore was emptying her chamber pot. Then there was the task of Missus’s closet. Even though we did not have much company, she still changed three or four times a day, and a pile of discarded dresses both dirty and clean had accumulated on the chaise. I was holding her evening dress on a hanger when Lovie cracked the door and handed me a kerchief containing a block of ice. “When you through in here, Aunt Hope needin’ you to help serve supper.”
The dining table was long enough to seat twelve. Master Jacob sat at one end and Missus Delphina the other. They were so far from each other that they had to speak up so that the other could hear what was being said. When Mama and I ate, we sat right next to each other with our elbows touching.
I spooned mutton stew into each of their bowls, served slices of cornbread, and then retreated from their line of sight. Kept my back close to the wall without touching it, my white-gloved hands folded in front of me, and pretended not to listen. Mama always said the way to keep peace with white folks was to be available and invisible at the same time.
Master ate with pleasure while Missus idly moved her spoon around the bowl.
“Delphina, you must eat something. Need to keep up your strength.”
“What is the point? I lose everything that I love.”
“We are expecting a new life. Doctor Wilks assured me that this time will be different.” He picked up his wine and drank. “To God be the glory.”
Missus lifted the spoon to her mouth.
“I am heading down to Charleston in a week’s time.”
Her spoon clanked against the bowl. “You went to Richmond not four weeks ago. Do you have to leave again so soon? And me in my condition?”
“Trading is picking up. Getting so people only want wheat from our farm. Bell wheat they calling it. Many deals to be made.”
“So soon after losing my Rachel? Who am I going to get to replace her in the house? And who is going to run the business?” she gripped the table.
“Pheby is capable. And overseer Snitch knows this place almost better than I.”
“Pheby is dim-witted,” she spat, like I was not standing there.
“I do not think you have given her a chance. Sally taught Pheby a lot.”
“Your sister spoiled that girl rotten. Got her thinking that she is better than a slave. For once, I wish you would take my side,” she pouted.
“I am always on your side.”
Missus removed her napkin, dabbing roughly at her mouth.
“Going to stop by your parents’ farm along the way. Anything you want me to deliver them besides the good news?”
She frowned. “Me, Jacob. I cannot stand to be here alone again. I declare, these darkies are trying to craze me.”
“Oh,” he said sweetly, “you are with child, dear, and need your rest.”
“I need to be around someone I can have a real conversation with. The isolation is deafening. Cannot remember the last time I saw a white woman.”
“Your parents were just here for the winter feast.”
“Feels like ages ago.” She sighed. “I beg you.”
“The whole house would fall apart without you here.”
“Then let it crumble,” she declared, but then when she saw the crinkled-up look on Master’s face, she shoved her spoon in her mouth.
He signaled to me for more stew.
“Who are you taking with you?”
“Parrott and Ruth.”
“Ruth.” She spat out Mama’s name. “That nigger woman needs to stay here and work. We are already short hands and we need to prepare the house for spring. Not to mention the planting.”
“All your worrying will make you sick. Now, I will send for someone from the fields to help. With thirty-nine slaves, I am sure we can make it work.”
“Thirty-nine personalities for me to manage alone.”
“Snitch is a good overseer. He’ll keep everyone in line. Besides, it will only be about two or three weeks.”
“You said that the last time you went south and you stayed away three months.”
I could tell by the way Master chewed the inside of his jaw that his patience had waned. Missus must have noticed too, because she dropped her eyes and reached for her lemonade.
“Please let Lovie know to begin preparing my things for departure.”
Missus pushed her bowl away from her.
“Pheby,” Master Jacob called to me. I stepped from the shadows. His eyes registered the damage to my cheek and then he swallowed. “I will have tea and plum pudding in the parlor.”
“‘Yes, master!’” Missus Delphina roared. “See, the girl has no manners.”
“Yes, master.” I backed out of the dining room before Missus could raise any more Cain.
The kitchen sat at the back of the property. The stone building had a wooden door, and a cloud of smoke bellowed from the chimney. Aunt Hope, the plantation cook, stood bent over her cast-iron pot. I guessed she was stirring up sweet potatoes from the smell of sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg that peppered the air. Soon as I entered the room my body temperature climbed.
“What they needin’” She shuffled from the pot to the ovens to the bowl of green beans on the center worktable. Sweat rolled down her neck and settled in a puddle in her ample cleavage. I fanned myself with the edge of my blouse and delivered Master’s message.
“Ain’t had nothin’ on your stomach today.” She reached into the wire-rimmed basket and handed me a piece of bread that I quickly stuffed between my teeth, and a boiled egg that I inhaled in the time it took her to prepare Master’s dish.
Missus Delphina did not look up at me as I passed through the dining room with the dessert tray. The parlor sat off to the side of the carriage hall, enclosed by two grained pocket doors. It was my favorite room in the house, and where I’d spent countless hours with Miss Sally sitting by the fireplace, reading in the inglenook, learning arithmetic and geography, and playing the piano. Miss Sally’s mahogany piano had a tapestry front, and legs that mirrored animal limbs, with feet and claws. As a child, I used to make up ridiculous stories about the animal carvings just to make Miss Sally laugh. I liked to see her happy.
She never married on account of her illness. No one bothered to tell me what ailed her, just that she suffered from woman problems and there was nothing Mama or the white doctor could do. Near her end, she was so frail that Master Jacob would carry her to the parlor and prop her up with pillows so that I could play for her. When she became too weak to clap, she mouthed, “Brava.”
I found Master sitting in his wingback chair, smoking his pipe and reading the newspaper.
“Anything else I can do for you, sir? I mean master?”
As I placed the tray on the table next to him, he motioned for me to lean closer. Taking my face in his big hands, he turned it from side to side, surmising the damage.
I shook my head.
“Tell Hope I said to give you a good bit of that mutton stew. Cure-all for everything and I know how you like it.”
I smiled the best I could with the inflamed cheek.
“Play something nice for me?”
“On the piano?” I gasped. Missus Delphina had forbid me to play unless company needed to be impressed, which had not happened in a long while.
“Something Sally would want to hear. This month would have been her birthday.”
“Her favorite song was ‘Pretty Dreamer.’”
He nodded and picked up his tea. I sank into the plush stool and poised my fingers to play. My heart raced as I stumbled through the first section, but then the dust fell away and the notes glided off my fingertips. A calm came over me. I lost myself between the sound until I was so high it felt like I had the power to do anything. When I rose from the piano and gave Master a curtsey, he clapped his hands and whispered, “Brava.”
I could not help but glow under his appreciation until I saw the back of Missus Delphina’s skirt whip around her ankles as she moved away from the door.