“Early In America” by Ryan Priest
Once upon Virginia in the year 1788 there was a five-member family who lived on part of, what would one day become, the most prosperous tobacco plantation in the whole of the United States. That’s all sometime later as this story takes place during those first few years of the newly independent coalition of states which similarly would soon grow into the most powerful nation to ever exist.
The family’s surname was Cunningham and unluckily for them, tobacco had yet to become the cash crop it later would and their small farm with its four cows, two horses and five slaves toiled endlessly to produce a crop that served only a very small niche in the overall market.
The Cunningham family consisted of two daughters, Mary and Sarah their mother Emily, the father Jeremiah and the six-year-old Ben Cunningham who was the first of their clan to be born an actual American citizen.
The blacks were a group of second and third generation slaves. They came with the land. The old owner had fled the country after the war and the land was endowed to the Cunningham estate in recognition of Ezekiel Cunningham’s brave service in the war. He never made it out of the war, of course, which is how his brother Jeremiah ended up with the spoils that he never lived to see.
With the war over, the ebb and flow of commerce was slowly returning and the demand and asking price were rising for their unique little crop. Years of hard, callous-filled work were beginning to show signs of paying off.
All around people seemed to be doing better, prospering in their endeavors. For the first time the notion of an eighteenth century republic seemed like it might actually work.
Like the purchase of a horse or an investment in a new ox, procuring a new slave was a serious decision. Not only did it cost a pretty penny to buy him but then there was the fact that there was a new mouth to feed, a mouth that would need feeding for the rest of its life, far beyond its usefulness. There were no old-slaves’ homes in which to put your broken down and elderly field hands. So, when buying help it was not only important to weigh the immediate necessity but also to seriously mull the prospect of future necessity because that man or woman was going to need to eat regardless of there being enough food.
The family had discussed it amongst themselves but that was really a pleasantry as Jeremiah had already decided and he was the sole voice of authority. Like dinner and clothing and most other effects the news made it down to the slaves secondhand, only after the Cunninghams proper had extracted all the joy possible from keeping secrets.
The slaves seldom left the land except on rare occasions or when Jeremiah needed assistance in town. To them, Africa was as far away as Delaware or South Carolina or any other place beyond the veil of their horizon. Nevertheless they were excited. The prospect of having a new stable mate and an additional field hand was delightful. Each slave relished the times he got to meet up with the blacks from the neighboring farmsteads. Once a year during the whites’ county fair they had their own gathering where they’d trade songs, stories, recipes, rumors with the slaves from the other local plantations.
The slaves were always excited about any break the endless agricultural routine imposed by the harsh reality of country life but to little Ben Cunningham, it was as if his birthday had come early.
“I like fishing. Do you think the new nigger will like fishing?” Ben would chat away to Hester, his mammy, while she worked her endless set of chores as eldest of the three black females.
Hester wasn’t known for giving Ben’s questions more than a chuckle and “Well Massa Ben I don’t know.” But at least she answered him. His mother and two sisters wiled their days away in the house, fanning themselves, playing cards and doing what his father referred to as prattling on.
It was probably because of the prattling that Jeremiah had become such a specter in his own son’s life. He stayed away from the house as much as possible, tending to the plantation and taking long walks constantly trying to survey exactly how much land was his.
Hester was nice but far too busy for fishing, frog catching and all the other things a boy loves to do. He hoped the new slave would be different. He’d known his sisters and the other slaves for the entirety of his young life, they were already set into their routines long before he’d shown up. He saw this new slave as an opportunity to finally get some assistance in what he liked to do.
“Niggers are just like dogs or horses, if you train them early on there’s nothing you cannot get them to do.” His father had explained countless nights, usually around his third cup of scotch. He’d hold court explaining his world views and opinions to his wife and children all of whom, except Ben, would nod pleasantly, mindlessly while they sewed or read through their many novels.
All afternoon Ben had stood at his porch listening for the clip clop clip clop of horses pulling his father’s wagon wheels. He had no understanding of this but his parents often commented on the safety they felt living in the country. In any direction a horse could be heard for a mile away. Where they had come from, Boston, the loud clanging of shoed hooves was as consistent as the rush of water heard on a boat; Ever present but silent until commented upon. However out there in sticky Virginia, the loud clamor of city life was replaced by the soft whirs of bugs and the nightly symphony performed by the crickets and owls.
Ben’s body stiffened like a dog who’s heard a far off noise. His ears met a familiar sound. The sound of transportation, the sound of a trot, the sound no horse would ever make on his own in the wild. His father was back!
The others on the plantation needed not listen for horses as they were alerted to the arrival by a screaming and shrieking Ben running back and forth from his house to the slave quarters making sure no one was missing what was, at the time, the most exciting moment in his life.
They could tell Jeremiah was in a foul mood by the way he cursed the horses and grumbled his way up to the house. The darkening red of dusk hid the details of his caravan until he was nearly upon them.
“Oh Lord! Jeremiah what’s happened?” Emily cried aloud as the two sisters hugged each other and sobbed.
“That ornery Nigger bit his ear off.” It was the country voice of Willie Pennington from the back of the wagon. He was one of the white townies, he’d done some work over the years for the Cunninghams but they hadn’t been expecting him today. They also hadn’t expected Jeremiah to come home covered in blood with red rags tied around his head.
“When I got out of town the bastard jumped on me, sank his teeth into my ear and bit down.”
“Wild Niggers got a bite like a horse, they ain’t got no use for dinnerware in the jungle, they just eat right through the bones of lions, bears, elephants, whatever they can find.” Pennington explained with a yellow leer checkered by missing teeth. “He had to come back into town for my help just to get this black beast home.”
The slave in question sat in the back, chained, next to Pennington. He too was covered in blood but it was around his mouth and over the sewn together sacks he wore for clothing. He sneered at the Cunninghams both proper and slaves.
“Jeremiah will you be all right?” Emily cried with all the emotion of a woman who knows her survival in the world and that of her children depends upon the health of one man, now an ear short.
“Oh Jeremiah!” She buried her face in her hands sobbing which in turn made the girls sob even harder.
“Willie tie the savage Nigger up. I have to see to this.” Jeremiah explained as he led the women inside insisting that he would be fine and could easily get by hearing out of one ear.
Willie hopped down from the wagon cajoling the African to do the same with jabs from a pitchfork.
“Bucktooth, you and Georgey help me with him.” Willie ordered two of the slaves by name. That’s how it was in the early days. Everyone knew everyone else and everyone’s slaves. The old plantation owners had named Bucktooth for a big buck tooth that snaggled out of his smile and Georgey was named that as a slight on their former king, George the third.
The African slave was being all around uncooperative but his attempts at direct violence seemed to be over for the moment. Willie and the two slaves were able to drag the African to a hitching post where they tied his chained wrists over his head and stepped back to observe how he liked his new predicament.
For dinner Willie would join the Cunninghams inside. The slaves ate in their quarters, away. No one had much of an appetite watching Jeremiah, pale as a ghost from blood loss, shoveling food into his blood covered face with red fingers chipping and flaking with dried blood.
When he was excused from the table little Ben made haste getting back outside to observe the new slave.
The old slaves were already out there silently studying the African. They didn’t like this one bit. Here was a wild, dirty and violent creature from somewhere far far away and yet they were just expected to make room for him in their crowded barn and share the always meager food they got with him?
It was insulting. They know their place, they were niggers and white folks were their betters, yes but this…thing wasn’t even a nigger. He was more different from them than they were from the whites. He didn’t even know how to speak, only growl out weird, nonsensical syllables from his purple lips.
He even looked wild, super dark skin, not brown but black with two fiery bloodshot eyes beaming forth like a rabid basset hound. Is this the way their masters saw them?
“Don’t get too close Massa Ben. He’s got the devil.” Hester said parentally holding Ben back with her almond colored arms. She didn’t know this but she was three fourths white, all of the Cunningham slaves were the product of miscegenation to greater or lesser degrees. The family who’d owned them before had intersexed with their parents and grandparents so much that they now bore a closer resemblance to their European masters than they did to this true African. None of them realized this though as the sex had stopped a generation earlier and their new master, Jeremiah was a strict Christian who valued his marital fidelity.
They had no real understanding of their non-slave heritage. They knew that long ago, before The United States, before the war, somewhere back in the dark of history, the whites had saved their ancestors from an eternity in heretic Hell by taking them out of the jungles of Africa and teaching them about Jesus in the new world.
What they didn’t know was that the new slave was different from their ancestors. Africa is a big content, home to many different tribes and nationalities. Their people had been some of the first taken by the Dutch, off the coast. They hadn’t come from the jungle at all. The new slave, Yombe, was from the jungle; the deepest darkest jungles of the Congo, in the heart of the continent.
If they had more education perhaps the slaves would have realized that those strange sounds coming from his mouth were words, just in a different language. Had they spoken Yoruban they would have realized Yombe was explaining himself…and giving warning.
He had walked alone from the jungle heading east. Driven by a foreign will he made his way to the coast. The slavers were more than happy to add one more body to their load, a young and strong body at that.
He could have ended up anywhere, with anyone but the young African found himself being led away by Jeremiah Cunningham. He hadn’t attacked him out of want of freedom. Yombe knew that his destiny was waiting at the Cunningham farm; A destiny that had been chosen for him by the holy men of the tribe. He could feel that destiny winding down the closer he got to the farm.
He tried to explain it all but the slaves didn’t understand. There was no way for him to communicate to them that he didn’t want to hurt anyone and that they needed to get him out from under the rising moon as quickly as possible.
“Why is he going on like that?” Ben asked Hester. This slave wouldn’t do for his plans at all. He didn’t much care about his father’s damaged ear the way a child doesn’t blame his dog for his bite. What concerned him was that the slave was calling out and squirming like a lamed rabbit along his hitching post.
“I think he’s sick.” Hester said looking askance at the whole scene. She didn’t much care for it but it was something and anything was entertainment.
“Shouldn’t have ate no ear.” Bucktooth called out garnering him loud laughs from the others.
Pink foam began to froth from the slave’s mouth and his body gave a couple of last twitches before he dropped to dead weight held up only by his chained wrists.
“I think he dead.” Bucktooth said.
“Fix him!” Ben cried out watching as his prospective fishing companion swung prone.
Yombe was gone, he would not be coming back. If the slaves had understood Yoruban they would not only have understood that the creature to speak next, though in Yombe’s body, was not Yombe. They also would have run.
“Untie me, right now.” The African said in English as clear as a minister’s. Ben couldn’t believe it as the slaves walked dutifully to him and let him down with the gentlest of care.
Ben heard perfect English, the slaves heard the dialect they most identified with authority, had a Frenchman been there he’d have heard French. The slaves heard something else though, something not so much spoken as felt, resonating through their entire bodies, filling them with the same primordial force of will that had made Yombe trek across his continent.
“What are you guys doing? Don’t let him down.” Willie came out of the house uttering what would be the last words of his life. As he descended the short porch, Bucktooth and Georgey, who he had known all of his life, who he had worked with through countless summers during the war when manpower had been short all over, Bucktooth and Georgey two slaves who were as close to friends as slaves could be, each grabbed one of his arms and held him into place while the thing that had come to America as Yombe swung down a spade, splitting Willie’s face in two to his upper lip. His nose like some obsolete piece of mangled flesh drawn over to one side of the divide.
“Massa Ben come on.” Hester covered Ben’s eyes and led him towards the slave quarters while the slaves, finished with Willie’s body, dropped it on the ground like a discarded corn husk and headed up the stairs to the front door of the home they were never allowed to enter.
What terrified Ben more than anything, was the way they all silently moved in unison, dutifully and forcefully like one cohesive unit. He could make out little from the gaps in Hester’s fingers but the way they were carrying themselves was something he’d never seen out of a slave before.
Above, holding him to her breast with iron hands, breath like sour milk was Hester, fighting with everything she had inside the urge to rip the boy’s throat out.
She’d seen spirits before, the possessed as well. As oldest on the farm she was the defacto go to on all things paranormal. It was she who handled what the whites pretended not to see. She took curses off, fashioned medallions against evil, in her youth she’d watched as an entire slain Indian tribe marched across the land killing the ground and fouling the earth wherever their ghostly footfall landed.
It was she, Hester and her now dead mother Persephone who had blessed the four points of the plantation saving it from the Indian scourge. She’d seen all of these things and yet she’d never felt anything as powerful as the creature inhabiting what used to be Yombe. She had to fight, she’d looked after Ben since his birth. He was more hers than Emily’s. She bandaged every scrape and kissed every bruise, saved the best parts of all her deserts for the boy.
Even the crickets had stopped chirping, there were no bays from the livestock either, the only sound reaching Ben’s ears was that of Hester’s sobs and the slow, drawn out pant of a third body slowly coming closer in the slave quarters known by all as the little house. Ben finally managed Hester’s hands away from his eyes and there standing before the two of them was the youngest slave on the farm, the fifteen year old Hannah.
Hannah was Bucktooth’s sister and shared his prominent overbite however what separated the two was that on Hannah the overbite instead of giving her a foolish appearance served to give her an enormous smile that lit up whatever room she was in. She wasn’t smiling now. Her full, burgundy lips were stretched back showing all of her teeth giving her a seeming sneer. Her eyes stared intently at Ben as her cotton dress heaved up and down slowly with each breath.
Clutched in her right hand a jagged and rusted dinner knife shook with furious intensity.
“Hester move.” She growled without taking her eyes from Ben.
“Hannah you go on, leave him, he’s only a child.” Hester said squeezing Ben to her chest.
Hannah shook her head in disapproval but she broke her gaze from the boy. “Fine. Hide him real good and come on.”
The young girl ran out of the slave quarters and directly towards the house where the rest of the slaves were already inside. Hester grabbed some blankets and old, empty sacks throwing them over Ben.
“You a good boy Massa Ben. Stay in here and ain’t nothing gonna happen to you. You got that Massa Ben? You gonna stay hid here?” She didn’t wait for an answer. She had to get out of the boy’s presence before letting the murderous desire overtake her.
She already knew what was happening inside as she made her way to the house her bare feet too calloused from a life of no shoes to feel the stones and burrs underneath. This was the day she’d expected her entire life. They’d all been expecting it, every black slave in America. For over a hundred years they’d been waiting. The wait was long, so long that their language didn’t last long enough; So long that they no longer remembered where they had come from.
They didn’t know what they were waiting for or even that they were waiting. This ran deeper than the thoughts and experiences of an individual. They weren’t born with this expectation either, sure the potential was there but it didn’t really kick on until adolescence, until they realized their situation and expected place as slave.
You see, the slaves were human beings just like their masters. And slavery is unnatural and abhorrent to the human condition. No matter how much they try, how well they plan it all out, how benign the intention, slavery inevitably leads to revolt. Human history is riddled with the recurrent theme of forced labor practices being met with revolt. Whether it is the Jews’ flight from Egypt or Spartacus in Rome wherever the yoke of lifetime bondage has fallen on a class of people, bloodshed and murder has followed.
“Sweet baby Jesus protect me from evil and protect Massa Ben. Sweet baby Jesus protect me from evil and protect Massa Ben.” Hester chanted so fast she was running all the words together in the belief that the more intensely she said it the greater chance she stood of summoning Christ’s aid.
By now everyone has heard of a voodoo doll. We recognize voodoo as a slightly kooky and heavily suspect religion from Louisiana wherein chickens are killed, tarot cards read and vengeance extracted upon enemies by means of stabbing pushpins into little dolls.
What they didn’t know then and what most still don’t know today is that the frivolous Bourbon Street practices take their root in a much older religious tradition, emanating from the jungles of Africa and the Yoruban tribe.
The two Cunningham daughters had been the first to die. Taken by surprise, their playing cards still out on the table, the girls shrieked. The site of the slaves inside could only mean trouble. Fearing the worst, ideas put in their head by the overheard mutterings of base men, the girls each reached down with both hands to hold their skirts down and in so doing exposed the real target, their heads, to the picks, shovels and other farm equipment.
Carnality was a part of life in those days. To eat meat you had to kill livestock. You killed it, you cut it up, you cooked it and you ate it. Blood and guts were just normal preparation. The sight of the girl’s dead bodies, their heads bashed and cracked open, didn’t stir a single emotional fiber of Hester as she passed.
She ran upstairs where she knew the rest would be. Jeremiah Cunningham, Massa, lived upstairs and he was really what this was all about.
Voodoo, like all spiritualism, is inherently about duality. The Yorubans believed unequivocally in a world of shadows and gods, populated by the souls of their dead relatives. This world was different from ours and hidden to us. The Yorubans would give sacrifices and chant begging the council or aide of one of these spirits. If their request was granted, the spirit would take over their body, speak through their voicebox and see through their eyes.
By the time Hester reached the top of the stairs she was full of murderous rage and the thought of Jeremiah Cunningham still breathing was like an awful taste stuck in her mouth. Maybe it was the proximity to the former Yombe who was leading the party huddled outside the bedroom door. Maybe it was simply the inevitability of it all that she gave herself over to. Blood had been shed and there was no going back. They either had to kill them all or themselves be killed.
Not just the Cunninghams either but all slave masters throughout the land would have to die. They would kill and continue to kill whites wherever they found them until all of their people were free. It had not so much to do with solidarity as it did survival. As long as there were any slaves it meant that there was a slave class. All must be liberated so that no one would ever mistake their children or children’s children for slaves and steal up their lives.
The master bedroom’s door soon broke apart at the hinges. The slaves burst in to find Jeremiah waiting for them holding a bloody candlestick. Lying dead on the floor was his wife of seventeen years, dead by his hand. With all the screaming and the fists against the door his mind had been left to wonder what horrors his daughters must be going through. He knew help was at best miles away and that this night would be his last. With no options left to him he’d figured the only decent thing he could do was make it so his wife didn’t suffer.
The slaves weren’t bad people or more violent than anyone else. They were easygoing and never harbored any open animosity for their masters. Of course everyone looks savage when they’re bearing down on you for the kill. Everyone has the same face, eyes wide open, lips pulled back to expose the teeth, it’s just natural. Animals do the same when hunting in the wild. However no one thinks of that when attacked, they only see the fury and wonder how it could have laid hidden for so long without them realizing. All Jeremiah could think of as his bones were broken on all sides were the laughs and the happiness. He couldn’t believe that all of this time, after all of these years his friends, his wards would be so quick to turn on him.
The most powerful god to the Yoruba is known as Legba. He’s not omnipotent nor does he hold any authority over the other gods. What makes Legba so important is that he’s the go-between. All contact between the two worlds, meaning all congress we’d consider Voodoo, is regulated by Legba. He decides if he’ll let the gods hear your prayer or if he’ll let your dead aunt come to visit. He must always be revered and always bribed.
Voodoo gods are very greedy for the alcohol poured to honor them. They love the sacrifices of food and the trinkets given in hope of their favor. The spirits get their materialism taken care of and the Yorubans receive their spiritual fulfillment. It’s a good relationship for all. So if a plague or famine happens, that’s bad for business. Not only less Yorubans to give sacrifices but also the ones who survived would be less inclined to trust in the gods. If you can’t prevent a flood then what good are you?
Jeremiah’s last Earthly visions were of the slaves he’d grown to care for like extended family rifling through his bureaus and drawers snatching up anything they took for valuable, even old venerable Hester amongst them. He couldn’t believe the insolence. Then his shock ended, as he was dead.
Africa had been screaming for over a hundred years. Her children were being plucked from her and taken away never to return. The strain was tearing the two worlds apart and so it had fallen on Legba to orchestrate a solution, though it would not come cheap. His price was the sacrifice of a strong and fine Yoruban youth. And so it was that Yombe was selected by his people to be the vessel of Legba and ferry the god into the New World.
Now Yombe was gone and it was only Legba in human form. It was Legba who was giving the orders to collect the knives and find the guns. The slaves, who by now weren’t even speaking English anymore but screaming Yoruban and other foreign words. The influence of Legba so strong that their consciousnesses were sent deep into their blood’s memory. They slinked across the floor like stalking cats and popped their bodies straight up into the air jumping in celebration. They’d never seen this done before but their bodies knew it. Only a few generations between their lives here and their thousands of years of history oceans away.
It was now time for them to spread out. They gathered their treasures and weapons of war following behind the awkward dancing steps of Yombe’s body as the god within still struggled to find his footing, like with a new pair of shoes. They left the house and down the porch they went readying for a battle that had been in the making for over a hundred years.
There were two sounds that followed in quick heartbeat succession. The first was the loud firing of a wide mouth musket and the second was Yombe’s lifeless, godless body hitting the cold night earth.
Like that, Legba was gone from the New World, banished from America. The slaves immediately felt the fervor disappear and they stood huddled together like sheep without any idea of what to do next.
Holding the musket, used for killing wolves, rabbits and now gods, was little Ben Cunningham with tears streaming out of eyes that would never see the world as innocent again.
Hester took him by the hand and led him down to the well to wash the dirt and blood off. He’d obviously disobeyed her and gone into the house. There was no changing that now, there was no changing anything. She felt bad that the Cunninghams were dead but she didn’t feel any guilt or shame. It didn’t seem right to be ashamed of wanting her freedom. America had been forged out of the fires of liberation. It seemed only right that black folks find their freedom the same way.
The other slaves went back to their stable, not even into the Cunningham house, to await the first white visitors and the inevitable circus that would bring. They didn’t care though. There spirits were broken. They had watched their savior arrive and just as quickly die. They didn’t even really understand what had happened.
They wouldn’t kill Ben. They couldn’t even look him in the face after what they’d done to his family. Hester took care of him and he let her as they waited for all the commotion.
Bucktooth and Hannah tried their luck at large and managed to keep themselves alive for about two days before the mob found them and exacted revenge for the killings. It was twice as bad for Hannah as it was for Bucktooth but when it was over they were both dead and their empty black corpses were dragged behind the clip clop of horses so all the whites in the county could cheer.
Hester as well as the others were tortured, ravaged and hanged. It all happened less than twenty feet from the cottage like house they’d lived in for their entire lives. Ben was taken in by a neighboring family but he skipped town and headed north as soon as he was old enough. He never sent the family word.
Soon the Cunningham farm had been bought and sold and then bought again. The big house with its bloodstains and secrets had been torn down as well as the little house too. Thirty years later no one could even remember Jeremiah or any of his clan. The farm was now just part of a plantation full of farms growing tobacco all around, everywhere except two distinct patches of land. Every crop they’d plant on these two invisible rectangles would wither and die. Old slaves who’d heard stories passed down from their parents said that those were the spots where the old slave quarters and the old house had been but no one was sure if they believed it or not. After all, what did slaves know?
Now two hundred years later and there is no more slavery. The States have increased in number and they are still as united as ever. Tobacco is still grown and harvested, only now the work is done by machines and for big corporations all over the state of Virginia, except for two little patches that remain barren and cold to this day.
Ryan Priest is a cop fighter, a freedom enthusiast, a spinner or tales and worker or sweet magic. When not doing those things he’s a mild mannered computer programmer. For a list of his published works please see www.RyanPriest.net