She Could Simply Walk Away
Jemma heard the sound again, a low moan coming from across the swamp.
She had previously dismissed it as the groan of a live oak branch rubbing against another in the breeze, a common enough sound in the wetlands.
This time she inclined her head toward the fan of palmetto leaves and listened intently. Moonlight penetrated through ghostly fingers of Spanish moss draped above her head, limning the trees in black against the starlit sky. She could smell the scent of decaying vegetation and feel the damp, cloying bayou air like a wet blanket on her skin.
A night owl hooted eerily, but Jemma did not spook easily, even though she had slipped out without permission. The mistress knew she needed herbs and willow bark to do her work. An outbreak of yellow fever could wipe out the entire population of slaves currently living on the sugar plantation. Jemma was becoming known for her healing arts, and that's why the barn door was usually left open. She could come and go as she pleased ever since she had successfully treated slaves on the neighboring plantation for the deadly disease.
There it was again. Definitely a human voice, moaning in pain. She hiked up her skirts and waded into the black waters, mindful of the risk of snakes and alligators, but unwilling to leave a fellow human, possibly a runaway slave, in trouble.
Slogging through the knee-deep bog, she reached a shelf of dry ground and found the man lying on the grass, his knees drawn up to his chest.
Jemma lifted the shutters of her lantern, letting out more light in order to see his face. The eyes were closed tightly. A grimace stretched his lips into a gray mask of pain.
Jemma gasped, startled that she knew that face all too well. Master Alex! He had ridden away five months earlier, handsome and daring in his gray uniform, confident that he would soon be returning to his bride after defeating the Union army. The smart military jacket was now soaked with blood, dirty with gunpowder surrounding the open wound, the breeches caked with mud to the knees.
"Massah Alex!" She exclaimed, putting one hand over her mouth as her heart leaped within her, a leap of sudden fury.
The soldier opened bleary, fever-bright eyes. "Don't shoot me," he muttered.
She bent down and lifted his head to peer more closely into his face. "It's me, Massah Alex. It be Jemma that's found you." She wanted him to know.
He moaned again. "Jemma?"
His eyes cleared momentarily with vague recognition. "Jemma?"
She didn't speak. Her hands were busy tearing the fabric away from the wound. Examining the skin beneath the bloodied jacket, it was bad, maybe even gangrenous from the smell of him.
She knew he wouldn't live until morning if she didn't get him back to the manor at once. She also knew that she was holding in her hands the life of the man who had ordered her flogged for the very thing she was doing now—slipping away from the sugar plantation to the swamps where she went to gather herbs, roots, and grasses for her poultices.
This was the man who had accused her of consorting with the devil after she had gone to Congo Square in New Orleans to seek advice from Madame Marie LaVeau.
Jemma thought the voodoo priestess might indeed be a witch, but the woman could conjure up remedies to cure many illnesses. It was from Marie that she had learned how to treat swamp fever. That skill had increased Jemma's value to her mistress.
Master Alex blinked up at her with a look of sudden clarity. "Am I home then?" His yellow eyes rolled wildly in hope.
"You be in the swamps, Massah." Jemma whispered, suddenly certain of what she must do.
At the time of her flogging, she had vowed that if she ever got the chance she would kill the man. She had dreamed up ways to torture him while she lay face down on a rough, straw-filled mattress for days, unable to rest on her flayed back. The older women had tended her wounds as best they could, but the scars of that flogging were permanently branded on both her flesh and soul.
Unconsciously, she lifted a hand to her back as she stared down at the man responsible for those vicious scars. Then she gritted white teeth in determination.
"Is it really you Jemma?" His eyes searched her face. Perhaps he saw the hatred barely hidden there because he groaned again and the hope went out of his eyes like a candle flame extinguished by a forceful breath.
He thrashed about and turned his head as if searching for some avenue of hope from another source.
She thought how easy it would be to simply walk back to the barn and slip through the door to the other side where the slave cabins stood in a row. No one would ever know she had found the master and left him there.
He would suffer and die, just as she had willed him to a thousand times since the flogging. Something inside her stomach twisted at the thought, a forceful, gloating thing that leaped up into her chest and urged her to laugh at him in his suffering and let him die. She reveled in the thought of revenge momentarily.
She could do it, savor it, and even rejoice in it. Her fingers ran over the ridges along her sides. They were more ugly than any scar the bullet hole would leave in his chest. This man had done that to her.
She had lain awake nights wondering: What right did a man have to torture another human being? Did the white man's God really give him that power? Back in Africa, her people had been powerful before the slave ships came. They were less than cattle in this land, the little ones on the neighboring plantation fed from a trough under the porch like dogs.
On her master's land, slaves were given their own cabins and treated with some degree of dignity and even kindness. Nancy, the master's wife had seen to that. But who knew what was going to happen if the South won the war? Jemma might someday be sold to a fate far worse than her present lot. Images of slave owners, brutal and vile, played quickly on the screen of her imagination. She had heard many stories during her visits to the slave gatherings in Congo Square.
She feared the uncertain future.
Yet, Jemma also had grown to love the master's wife. After Alex had gone to war, Mistress Nancy had Jemma brought to the manor house as her personal maid and had taught her how to read, although slaves were forbidden this privilege. Jemma's literacy had to be kept a strict secret.
Nancy, amazed and delighted at how quickly Jemma learned, had given her the task of reading Bible stories and Hans Christian Anderson's tales to the little ones at bedtime. How strange these white men's tales—a woman letting down golden hair to allow her lover to climb to her tower. A mermaid who grew legs and walked. Jemma recalled her own childhood stories. Sometimes she mixed one of them in with the others. The boy child was equally delighted with tales of African warriors killing lions and elephants.
After the children fell asleep, the house was quiet, and all lamps extinguished, Jemma often lit a candle and read from the white man's Bible. She thought it very strange that this Son of God had actually chosen to die for other people's sins. The spirits of her African ancestors would never allow their sons to die for their enemies, and certainly not an only son.
"Is Nancy well?" the dying soldier asked, interrupting her thoughts.
"She be well," Jemma murmured, struggling with the intensity of her emotions. She remained startled by the opportunity that had fallen to her to deal with her most hated enemy.
For a brief moment, she recognized the exulting thing in her chest for what it was. Vengeance. Something that must be left to the white man's God. That's what the book commanded. Among her people, it was a shameful thing, a great dishonor, to allow an enemy to go free and unpunished for his crimes.
She remembered dark bodies dancing around the orange firelight and could almost hear the African drums pounding a rapid rhythm in her ears. She realized it was the beating of her own heart beating with an intensity she had not known was part of her. Sweat popped out on her forehead.
"What about my little girl?" Alex closed his eyes with a faint smile. The image of the golden haired two-year-old appeared in Jemma's excited imagination.
"Your chilluns be well too." The slave woman assured him quietly. She did not venture to tell her master that the baby girl had suffered frequent stomachaches. Or that she had been able to relieve the child's discomfort with ragweed and willow bark tea.
Why should she tell him? She could also make him well, however, he would probably have her flogged again for going into the swamps to gather her "witch’s potions."
"Jemma, are we far from home? Are you running away?" The master questioned, his voice husky and his eyes remaining tightly closed as if to shut out painful circumstances.
When she didn't answer he continued, "I was wounded, and I couldn't find the way back to the camp. It was a hard battle. The Yankees were dropping us by the dozens. Wounded soldiers were running in every direction. I didn't know which way to go."
Jemma listened, aware that precious minutes counted if he were to live. His life's blood was draining out of him. He needed help immediately.
"I was with a soldier who knew the way back to New Orleans. He said we could make it in three days. I wanted to see Nancy so bad."
The wound bled afresh when another cough racked his body.
"Be still Massah," she ordered, tearing off her tignon, a madras kerchief, from her head. She tied it around his chest in an attempt to staunch the flow.
What was she doing?
The drumbeat of Africa pounded in her blood, primal and hot. The dance of vengeance was honorable. Her ancestors would be proud if she exacted his life. They would be shamed if she didn't.
"I shouldn't have had you flogged, Jemma," the master panted. "I thought I was protecting you from something worse—even a hanging—if a planter thought you were a runaway."
He breathed a sigh of genuine regret.
"I thought if you were flogged, the men wouldn't dare leave the plantation. They were in danger too, if they got caught out in the wetlands without . . . " another spasm of pain cut off his words.
Once more she felt the ripping and tearing of those lashes deep in her soul as he uttered the word "flogged." The pain of those lashes fired hatred in every fiber of her being. She hated the smell of him. The sight of him. His words of regret fell on stony, frozen emotions.
The power of the African drumbeat grew ever more intense. Jemma rose up from her knees. Master Alex didn't appear to realize she was leaving.
Her feet moved purposefully toward the black swamp waters once again, and she slogged across them without looking back.
The barn door would be open. She'd be back inside her cabin soon, reveling in the power of her revenge.
Then she heard him moan again. "Nancy."
The healer in her tugged at that small part of her soul that was still able to feel. What of her beloved mistress? Wouldn’t Nancy be greatly grieved to lose her man? Wouldn't the master's children, whom Jemma had also grown to love, be wretched? What would their lives be like, growing up without a father?
Let them be wretched! Jemma thought with hate-fired rage. Nobody had cared that she had been wrenched from her parents' arms as a child and then chained on that terrifying, stinking, slave ship filthy with human waste. The things she had seen during the weeks in the ship's hold were never far from her tormented mind.
But what if the white man's God truly was righteous? If so, wouldn’t He wreak vengeance on the slave ship captains and their hateful crews?
She pondered that thought, remembering the strange words she found in the Holy Book.
Then it occurred to her. Had God delivered her master's life to her this very night? Wasn't that a sign that she was the instrument of his vengeance?
She remembered the strange story of the man on the cross, asking his Father to forgive the very ones who put him there. What if God instead forgave this man she hated with all her strength?
No! She couldn't let that happen. It would be a disgrace.
Jemma slogged another five yards, steeling herself against the conflict now roiling inside her stomach like a cauldron of acid.
She should be dancing with glee. And indeed some part of her felt gleeful, but it was an ugly kind of glee, empty of any real jubilance.
"Jemma?" he called her name with a note of hopelessness from across the bog.
"Will you tell Nancy that I love her?" His question was a pitiful acquiescence to her power over him. The wounded soldier had realized the slave woman would not be any source of help. And without her assistance, he knew he was a dead man. He would not live to see another dawn.
Jemma kept walking and did not bother to answer.
She had made her decision. The power of that choice left her shaking, almost shocked.
Less than half an hour later, Jemma returned to the spot marked in her memory by the large palmetto fan. She brought Big Jim and Roley with her. The pair had quickly tied a sheet between two cut poles. Now they lifted the master upon it and carried him to the manor where Nancy waited with boiling water and herbal medicines brewing on the stove. Remedies prepared from ingredients furnished by Jemma, the slave woman who had been flogged for leaving the plantation to gather them.
That night, the only sounds Jemma heard from her bed beside the children were soft sighs coming from the master's bedroom. He was resting quietly after she had tended to his wound, which was not gangrenous, as she had first suspected. Because of her skills, he would recover.
The glee of vengeance was gone, but in its place was a kind of peace that Jemma had never experienced before.
Before she blew out her small candle and laid aside the white man’s book, she wondered briefly if the barn door would be kept closed after the master recovered.