This story does contain harsh, violent scenes, racial slurs, and explicit sexual content. All of these are included in the story for the sake of a realistic depiction of the era. By no means is my intent to offend anyone. Read at your own discretion.
March 1862 – Henrico, Virginia
Winter was beginning to blossom into spring on Radford Plantation. Far out from the boundaries of the fields, the War boomed continuously. Brothers were pitted against each other. Father and son turned against one another, and cities were seized to pieces. The Yankees and the Rebels spat venom in the form of bloodshed, but all the while Radford Plantation kept churning. It was systematic and every day was the same. Bright and early at five in the morning, the slaves were woken from their seldom-peaceful slumber. They ate their monthly cornmeal rations and the field workers went out to pick the cotton, hoe the rows, and fertilize the Radford livelihood. The house slaves would prepare breakfast for the family, wash the linens, and remove routine dust. It was better than being in the fields all day, but the constant demands of the Radfords were enough to drive a person to insanity.
Sarah was new on the plantation. She resided there only a week. At age 16, she had been on two plantations thus far. The first was a family in Kentucky from the time she was born until she was eleven years old. They sold her because "living with her parents was making her an inadequate worker." As if this lifestyle was even considered living at all. From there, she was sent to Alexandria, Virginia. She worked for a nicer family until a couple weeks ago when they brought in a new shipment of slaves and decided to clean out the old trash. Sarah was then bought by the Radfords, a wealthy family in Henrico who had just faced a loss of slaves due to typhoid fever. The Radfords claimed they wanted young Africans because they were leaner and better suited for work. Sarah was glad when she got off that train the previous Tuesday. Even though she was in shackles and manhandled, the smell of the three hour ride was worse than being tossed off the train at the plantation. At least she had fresh air.
Now, a week later, Sarah was starting to get into the swing of things. She hadn't done anything to warrant a whipping yet, so that was a good sign. From what she'd heard, there had never been a slave of the Radfords that had escaped a beating in the first week of their stay. She considered herself more than lucky… she was blessed. At this time it was 5:30 in the morning and Sarah laid on her cot, staring up between the cracks in the ceiling of the barracks. The morning light was just beginning to seep in. "Get up!" Georgie, a 30 year-old man and the head of her barracks, yelled. "I know that you're new, but when I say 'up,' I mean it." Sarah rubbed her eyes and stepped down onto the straw. She was dressed in nothing but a piece of ripped cotton that barely managed to cover her. "Mr. Radford's son is comin' back from the college this mornin' and he's gone be gettin' his own one of us. His pick. So get y'alls asses out there and look mighty if you want to get it good."
Sarah tapped on the shoulder of Greta, a 25 year old who'd been there for years, next to her. "Who is it that's coming?"
"Jonathan Radford. He's back from the University of Virginia and here to stay. He gets one of us girls. Whoever gets chosen goes and lives in the Big House. Own room and everything. Daily meals, too. Jonathan's a fine boy. Twenty years old and he's quite the dapper fellow, if I do say so myself." Suddenly, everybody was running. "He's here." Kicking dust on her way, Sarah sprinted with her gangly legs to the side of the dirt road that led to the front door. She was so short that she was almost scared he wouldn't see her in the crowd. His horse stopped right next to a weeping willow and he jumped off and handed the reigns to the stable boy. A middle-aged woman with not a wrinkle to her face rushed out, petticoat and all, down to meet her son. The boss, a graying Charles Radford, followed behind at an even strolling pace with a younger girl (perhaps a preteen) coming afterwards.
"Mother!" Jonathan cried. How he missed his mother so dearly. It had only been a couple months since he'd last been home for Christmas, but it felt like a year. They engulfed each other and held so tight, as if the almost non-existent breeze would blow them away.
"Jeanette, let the boy breathe," Charles interrupted.
"How's school, son?"
"As good as it could be while only a few acres out men are shooting each other to smithereens."
"It's the times. All is good here, though, and I am glad that this next month of vacation is going to be spent with us. Your sister missed you." The little girl standing offside stepped forward and Jonathan bent down and opened his arms.
"Come here, Munchkin." The little girl skipped into her brother's arms.
"I missed you, Jonny. I really did."
"I missed you too, Mary." After giving Jonathan a kiss on the cheek she was ushered back inside by one of the house slaves.
"Well, son," Charles put his hand on Jonathan's shoulder and turned him to face the clump of female slaves waiting eagerly to hear the verdict. "Your choice. Which one catches your eye?" Jonathan poked and prodded through the slaves in the front and appraised each one of them with disgust. After going through a few more, he landed upon Sarah. Sarah glanced down, as was expected of her, but had she looked him in his brown eyes, she would've seen something soft. Something caring.
"What's this one's name?" Jonathan asked his father.
"Sarah. Just bought her last week in my ventures to restock after the typhoid breakout. Got her from the Clints in Alexandria. She's 16."
"I choose her," Jonathan said simply.
"Are you sure? There are much older, more experienced – "
"I said that I choose her," he spoke assertively and with finality. Jonathan turned to a nearby house slave. "Take her in and get her cleaned up. Show her the bedroom and her clothing. I will be in there momentarily to talk." The house slave pulled Sarah's arm forcefully. Sarah kept her head down as she passed the Radfords, but in her head she was thanking God that she was chosen. Despite the work being around the clock, the work was considerably lighter and the odds of getting whipped were diminished.
Sarah had never been in the Big House. It was beautiful. It had nice wooden floors and right at the entrance was a grand staircase leading up to the second floor. The big chandelier atop the foyer was lit and the temperature was much more bearable than the cold outside. The house was adorned for royalty. "C'mon, girl. Mr. Jonathan won't be too happy if you ain't ready when he get there." Sarah followed the house slave obediently. "I'm Betty. I'm the head of us in the Big House. When I say somethin', you do it."
Sarah nodded fervently and she was lead to the back and downstairs to the basement level. Down in the basement were 10 beds in a row. All were separated by a night stand, a gas lantern, and had a simple blanket and straw pillow. On the only empty bed, laid a uniform all nicely folded. "Your bed is down at the end. Put water in a bucket from the basin in the corner and get dressed." Betty left after the instructions and Sarah was by herself. The bed wasn't all that comfortable, but it was leaps and bounds better than the hay stack she slept on in the barracks. She used a wash cloth and scrubbed the cold water under her armpits, between her thighs, and around her neck. Quickly, she put on the long cotton dress and apron, and wrapped her hair in the bonnet.
There was a knock on the wooden stairwell. It was Jonathan and he entered cautiously. Very slowly and carefully, he sat on the edge of Sarah's bed. "I just want to talk to you… I don't want you to be scared of me. I'm not like my father. I have a liberal mind, and I will treat you as a human, not an animal. You have two arms and two legs, just like me. I simply need you to handle certain tasks for me. Non-consensual sexual relations will not be one of those tasks. Do you understand me, Sarah?"
"I don't require honorifics. Just calling me Jonathan is fine. However, in the presence of my father, please use the honorific. We have guests coming to dinner tonight. The Fairley family from New Kent. Be in the dining room at 6:00. Betty will give you instructions. Please come to my bedroom tonight at 10:00, Sarah."
"Yes, sir – Jonathan." Jonathan pressed his lips into a thin line, then straightened out his clothes and left. His mother greeted him at the door leading back to the main house.
"What did you talk to the nigger about?"
Jonathan rolled his eyes and grunted. "Do not call her that. I just relayed to her her duties."
"It's what she is. She is a nigger – our slave and property."
"She is still a human with a beating heart and feelings. Anyways, why are the Fairleys coming?"
"Roger and Caroline are bringing Daisy to see you." Daisy Fairley had an irrational infatuation with Jonathan. She was 18 and from the young age of seven, their parents were pushing them together. Daisy was all for it, but Jonathan was not in the least interested. Daisy was a beautiful girl with long, blonde curly hair. She had bright blue eyes and thin lips with high cheekbones. But that was it… that's all there was to her. She wasn't the smartest individual and her personality was paper thin. Jonathan grunted in dismay. "Just suck it up for tonight, please? She is very excited to see you."
"I wouldn't care if she wasn't excited. The fact of the matter is that I don't want to see her, and I will not put up an act in order to suit her."
"Jonathan," Jeanette grabbed her son's arm, "You are my child and will do as I say, and you will be pleasant at dinner or so help me God. Be lucky I'm getting to you and not your father. He'd have a fit if he saw the way you are acting." Jeanette left Jonathan in the hallway and he crossed his arms petulantly. A couple hours later, the Fairleys' carriage arrived and Jeanette dragged a moping Jonathan outside to greet them.
Daisy was the first out of the carriage and she sprinted forward, "Jonny!" She swept her hair behind her ear and kissed Jonathan's cheek. "It's been forever since I've seen you. We have a lot of catching up to do."
"Do we really?" Jonathan turned slightly away from Daisy to hopefully smother the conversation before it went any further, but Daisy was relentless.
"It's been almost a year, Jonathan. New Kent is a long ways from Charlottesville and you only come around sparingly." Daisy lifted up her skirts slightly to go up the stairs into the house and outstretched her elbow, hoping Jonathan would escort her, but he made no such effort.
"I immerse myself in my studies and will not apologize for that. It's also quite dangerous to travel in these times."
"One of these days you will have to settle down and get married. Better to start thinking of it now than waiting until you're an old man."
"I'm twenty years of age and nowhere close to being an old man." Jonathan left Daisy in the hallway without remorse. Jonathan was a very plain-spoken man. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He did not believe in ever beating around the bush. To him, life was too short to always be dancing around the point. It was best to get the words out and waste no time. Dinner would not be ready for almost an hour, so he occupied his time in his father's study. He found solace in books and knowledge. Jonathan often dreamed that one day he would escape the South and live in the North with the Republican mindset and industrialized lifestyle. He knew better, though. His father would never allow his only son to turn to the other side and keep him as close kin. Jonathan's options were very clear: stay in the South and have a family or go to the North and be abandoned. For some reason, Jonathan thought the latter sounded better, but dreams were dreams for a reason, and at the height of the War, that's all they would be. As Jonathan stared blankly at the ink on the page of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, there was a knock on the old wooden door. Sarah came in subserviently.
"Dinner is ready, sir," she said timidly, eyes cast downward.
Jonathan cocked his head for a moment. "Come and sit, Sarah. Please close the door behind you." Sarah did as she was told. She took a seat in the chair directly opposite Jonathan. She was as still as a statue and knew better than to meet his eyes. Nevertheless, he said, "Look at me." She did so cautiously. "I have told you about not needing honorifics. Why are you scared of me?"
"I am not."
"Yes, you are. I can read your body language. You sit with a stiff back, your legs pushed together, and your hands clenched defensively into fists." Sarah did not realize that she was doing all of that. It just felt natural. She continued to look Jonathan in the eyes, in his deep brown eyes that were laced with long, curled eyelashes. She noticed his high cheekbones and curved chin. His jaw was softly rectangular and his nose was long. He was perhaps the most exquisite man she had ever seen.
Jonathan reached across the way to grab Sarah's hands. He gently and purposefully unclenched her fists and returned them to her lap. "Relax, Sarah," he whispered intently. There was a moment of silence between the two. It had just occurred to Sarah that Jonathan was in no hurry to get to dinner. "Do you know how to read?" That was a preposterous question. Any slave that knew how to read would be hanged or whipped to death.
"Of course not."
"Would you like to learn?" Sarah did not respond right away, so Jonathan pushed further. "Would you?"
"I want to, but if I did, I'd be killed."
"I will make sure that will not happen. At the end of the third row of tobacco left of the dirt road, there is a tree with a hole at the base. Meet me there tonight at eleven once everyone else has gone to sleep. I will teach you. Knowledge is power, Sarah, and for your race, power is the key." Sarah didn't know what to say, nor did she feel like there was anything to say. Jonathan stood and straightened out his clothing, then offered Sarah his hand and pulled her up. "Please go tend to dinner." Sarah nodded complacently. She could only dream of learning how to read. She wished she could go to the university and be knowledgeable like the white man, but she wasn't white, would never be white, and there was nothing she could do about it. Resolving herself to her pre-destined position, Sarah returned to her duties in the kitchen.