~Childhood: the period of human life intermediate between the idiocy of infancy and the folly of youth - removed from the sin of manhood and from the remorse of age~ Ambrose Bierce
These were the days, the easy cool summer afternoons of southern persuasion that inspired indolent, romantic poets and spirited children alike, one taking up the pen to write flowing words of lost love and the other taking up the innocence of play. They were swift moving, blended together and coursing through the veins of every child, leaving no mark of time, only the lingering scent of dreams. These days did not discriminate, whether white child or black child, master's only son or mulatto slave daughter, all were alike in their innocence and all experienced the simple peace of simply living.
It was in those days that Wilmington Plantation bustled with the activity of a growing family and the promise of a prosperous year. Each day and night was filled with the soulful distant songs of the field workers as they moved, brown backs against hot sun, in the bondage dance of cotton harvesting. From the white washed porch of the Big House, white tufts on green stalks stretched out as far as the eye could see, filling every corner of the earth, this was a good year.
Richly suited men purposefully sauntered through the high fields of cotton, every now and then gesturing to a piece of property with the same half interest as they did a colored slave. Neither were separate, land and slaves were intertwined in the coil of the system that the south had observed since it's birthing. One of twould comment on the vigorousness of the newly sprouted fields and another would off handedly mention that healthy appearance of a newly purchased servant.
Regal looking white women in their silks and satins would languish about the gardens, adorned with their fashionable large sweeping hats and full ruffled skirts. They would fan their delicate pale features rapidly in an attempt to ward away the heat but in the process only make themselves hotter. Every now and then, when the spirit moved them, they would glance in the direction of a group of tall old trees to catch a glimpse of one or two red-cheeked rouge children who would screech and run amongst the grass and flora. The boys chase each other, to and fro, eventually pining one another, rolling around wildly and then by chance one would catch the other in a moment of weakness, wiggle his slightly chubby body away and thus the cycle continued. Little girls, who resembled miniatures of their mothers, would sit in the grass and cheer the free boys on while they sat confined by bows and lace, tossing their curls in unbridled excitement but always secretly longing to join the wild escapades.
Two particular children sat underneath the spread branches of a particular tree on one of those days. There was a boy whose keen eyes and purposeful bearing belied his age of only twelve years. He possessed a strong face that was as solid as the character he had developed but in his expression a certain mischievousness could be detected and a good-natured glint to his gaze. The brown hair that graced his head was forever tousled, no matter how his mother insisted he comb it down and it reflected off of the intense blue of his eyes. He turned his keen eyes on the young girl of only nine years who sat silently beside him with eyes upturned as if awaiting a divine sign from the heavens.
It was evident from first glace that she would grow to be a striking beauty. Long curly locks framed her mocha and gold face, which worked to accentuate her natural raised cheekbones and large eyes. They were always inquisitive, asking questions that had yet to be uttered and in them the knowledge of a thousand ages dwelled yet the simplest thought excited her. She was a dreamer, pinning away at the stars, watching sparrows in flight across a blue sky and asking questions by the million, but only to him for he was her teacher.
"I feel you aren't paying attention today, Sadie." He said simply to her without removing his eyes from her face. Reluctantly, she pulled her gaze from the ant that had made its way up a piece of grass carrying an unrecognizable load on its tiny black back. Chastised, she stared downcast at the book in front of her, silently noticing how the words looked like little black ants making their journey across the page.
"I'm sorry, Nathaniel."
He waved a hand in the air to dismiss the apology. Swiftly he shut the book that was lying across his own lap and sighed.
"It's no matter, I suppose you've had enough lesson for today and it's hot. Besides mother will soon wonder where I've gotten too and of course we can't let her find out our secret. She'd be furious."
Sadie grinned a grin that lit up her whole face like a lone lantern in the darkness of a winter's night. It radiated off of the world around, bouncing from tree to tree, scurrying along the wind and finally resting in Nathaniel's dancing eyes.
"Just like the time when you put that fake rattler in the bed?"
"Worse, it's a crime to teach slaves to read you know."
She digested this for a moment. It was only recently that she had noticed the difference between herself and Nathaniel. He had been her playmate from the time she was born, bouncing her on his knee and forever toting her around like a coveted pet. The creek had been the place where he taught her how to swim on a warm summer's day and they had been caught in more than one escapade from which they were both scolded. As they grew together the lines of separation became clearer to Sadie even through her young mind. Nathaniel was the master's son; first and foremost, he was heir to the Wilmington Plantation and with that came certain responsibilities, though she wasn't quite sure what they were. She could not eat in the Big House with him and when visitors were present he was not allowed to laugh and talk with her like normal, secretly she hated the way he looked so starch and stiff when company came around. He had always, and rather easily, referred to her as a slave but never in malice, as a simple fact to be accepted and she had.
"Big Mama always says that it ain't-..."
" 'Big Mama always says that it isn't.'" He interrupted and corrected in his teacher's tone, Sadie swallowed and started again slowly, thinking and measuring out her words, anxious to please her prince of knowledge.
"Big Mama always says that it isn't a crime to know things."
Nathaniel smiled satisfied and then leaned back against the rough tree trunk with his eyes closed against the hot mid-day sun.
"Nate?" Sadie inquiring, using the pet name she had bestowed upon him as a little child.
"How come I have to talk all proper when none of the rest of them do?" She said referring to the slaves as "them" as naturely as she referred to God as "him."
He opened his eyes and surveyed her.
"Has Lora been making poking fun at you again?"
Her eyes lowered, not able to meet his because she feared looking at him would cause the tears to come and he hated it when she cried. That was one thing he could never stand, tears; it must have come from the fact that his father never allowed them in his presence. She had seen the quiver of his chin and the determined lines of his face as he attempted to rein them in and appear as much as a man as he could in front of him. Big Mama had commented that there was nothing healthy about not letting a boy cry but Sadie had never expressed this to Nathaniel.
His lean body moved closer to her and he pushed her chin up with his finger, holding her eyes with his own steady stare.
"There is no shame in being educated, Sadie." His voice had not yet decided whether it would be deep or high but that instant it was commanding and strong, sending ripples through her heart. She loved him; he was her playmate, teacher and confidant. He was her brother. Then the moment was broken when he released her and went back to his quiet spot against the rough bark of the tree.
"She's just jealous of you anyway." He stated simply.
"Jealous of me? What for?"
He sighed as if greatly annoyed but really he was used to her excessive questioning by now.
"Because I treat you as well as my own sister."
He sat up again.
"Because…I don't know… I just do and you should be lucky too. If I didn't think you had such a knack for learning, I wouldn't bother with you. I sometimes wonder if all the questions and all the trouble you cause me is worth having you always scurrying underfoot."
Sadie's eyes began their telltale flashing and he was quite sure what would happen next, he had planned it that way. He enjoyed seeing her get riled up, from a young age she had possessed a temper only matched by his own which had caused them many run ins with each other and others.
"Well, if you don't like having me around then don't." Her chin lifted defiantly and Nathaniel had to prevent himself from chuckling in spite of himself.
"You would make an excellent southern belle."
Her eyes widened and her cheeks had reddened in indignation.
"And you will never be a gentlemen."
"Ha! What do you know of gentlemen?" Nathaniel said while pulling himself up from the tree and dusting his wrinkled breeches off.
"I know that they are supposed to be dashing, chivalrous and amiable." Sadie responded coolly. He offered a hand to help her up but she refused with a sharp look and stood up on her own while in the process getting a foot stuck in the hem of her calico dress.
"I see that Rachel has been filling your head with nonsense again." He said in reference to his sister who was a few years older than Sadie and was already very interested in those of the male persuasion. Sadie was her personal servant and after every ball or gathering, as she helped her out of her numerous hoops and corsets, Rachel would tell her of the nights happenings and what handsome man had looked her way. Most of the time Sadie already knew because, after helping with serving the guests, she would perch atop the balcony and watch as the women in their colorful gowns and men in their starched finery whirled around the dance floor.
"It isn't nonsense, it's the truth." She said with finality but she knew better than to think Nathaniel would ever let her win a fight of words. Instead, to her surprise he stood silently by the tree with a hint of despondence on his face. Pregnant silence engulfed them, making her shiver but not from the cold, rarely had a feeling of dread come over her as swiftly as now, it seemed to darken even the sun in the sky.
"They are sending me away, you know."
The words jolted, causing an immediate headache to form behind her eyes and making it increasingly difficult to process the words.
"Sending you away? Where?"
"To Anderson Academy for the Refinement of Boys in Boston. I suppose I will come back a perfect stiff southern gentlemen won't I."
"You can't go."
"It is not for me to decide. It is already done." He said with a profound air of defeat. Sadie straightened herself and returned his weak gaze with her unwavering one.
"Well, the sooner you return, the sooner we can get back to the creek right?"
He sighed once again, from depths that he never knew, feeling a childhood that he cherished swiftly vanishing like the day. He smiled at her change from an adult attitude to the frightened humbleness of a child.
"Of course, Sadie…one day we'll go back to the creek."
That day the sun set and all who witnessed the lowering of the great red, yellow orb of heat on Wilmington Plantation, white, black, master and slave alike, felt the weight of the conclusion of those days and the distinct feeling that they would not again return for some time.