PARADISE, JAMAICA, 1812-25
I used to be called Frannie Langton before I was taken from Paradise to London and given by Langton as maid to Mr George Benham, who then gave me to his wife. It wasn't my choice to be brought here, but very little in my life ever was. I was Langton's creature. If I pleased him I pleased myself. If he said something was to be, it was. But Langton was a man who'd named his own house Paradise despite all that went on there, and named every living thing in Paradise too. What more do I need to tell you about him?
Where I come from, there's more than one way a man gives you his name. He marries you or he buys you. In some places that is the same thing, and they call it a dowry, but it's a truth everybody must savvy that in some places a man has no need to marry what he's bought.
This isn't going to be the story of all that was done to me at Paradise, or of everything I did. But I'll have to include some of it, I suppose. I've always wanted to tell my story, even though one person's story is only a raindrop in an ocean. But if you've ever stood in the sea when rain's coming then you know they're two different kinds of water. Seawater is nothing like the first cold drop springing fresh on your face, then another on your tongue, then another, pat-pat-pat on your closed eyelids until all around you rainwater's slapping at the sea.
The difficult thing is to know where to start. My life began with some truly hard things, but my story doesn't have to, even though nothing draws honesty out of you like suffering. The receiving of it, but the giving also.
I was born at Paradise and I was still a small girl when they took me from the slave quarters up to the house. For a long time, I thought that was a stroke of luck, but it was nothing more than the liar's habit of trying to make fact better than truth.
Some nights, if Phibbah had left the shutters open and the candles lit, I could creep along the river through damp grass, hide behind the sugar mill, gawp at the house. Yellow light shivered at the windows like church glass, and Miss-bella's shadow stretched grey and tall as she drifted past them. I pictured her inside, getting ready for bed, rolling towards Langton. The syrupy way white women move. Not like the cabin-women, who were quick as hens.
The house was a sight come morning too. Sun shining like Langton's church shoes. Heat already gripping my throat but still a cat's tail of mist. I'd walk the track through the guinea grass up to the front porch. Out in the cane-piece, the men waiting for their bowl of mash. Lime-washed walls, porch wide as shoulders, the logwood shutters Miss-bella made Manso put up to shut out the bad air. I liked the idea that the house was as new as me. Langton used to brag about making Manso and the hired-on stonemasons and carpenters work like clocks for three years getting it plumb.
Then I'd smooth out my brown calico, walk round to the back. Everything, all the way to where the river cut north, black, slow and mud-clogged, belonged to Langton. I'd sit right on one of Miss-bella's campeachy chairs, listen to the floorboards creak, lift my own arms out of the sun the way I'd seen the white ladies do, push my toes down to set the chair rocking. Just close my eyes and wait for the day to crawl towards noon.
Before they took me to live there, I only ever did that in my head.
Then one afternoon Miss-bella told Phibbah to fetch me, and Phibbah found me in the lower field with the third gang, where we'd been set with our little baskets of dung to throw into the cane holes. She took me through the cookhouse and washed my feet in the mop bucket, her kerchief fluttering like a yellow moth over her eyes and the heat from her grill slapping at my legs. She spent a long minute grousing how Miss-bella wanted her enemies near, which had given her the work of chasing niggerlings all morning, and then a short minute dragging me inside. I asked what Miss-bella wanted me for, but Phibbah was caked in the kind of spite that will not hear.
Miss-bella was in the room that belonged to her, and looked like her also. Both covered in silks and velvets, smooth and cool as lizards. A room so vast I was struck mute when I passed into it, and so wide I felt it was gobbling me whole.
Kiii! This place endless like outside, I thought, but with a roof over you and windows that decide how much light can come in!
Miss-bella sat in the middle on her stool, skirts spilling all around her. I might have thought her a spider in a web, but with her small, shining eyes, she put me more in mind of a fly. She had a pitcher of goat's milk set in front of her on a low table, which also had bits of johnnycake strewn across it as if put out for birds, or rat-catching. She picked out a piece of johnnycake. I took a step, which clanged like a bell and frightened me to a halt. There she was, rising towards me on an ocean of black satin. She had to reach for me and pull me all the rest of the way into the room. I remember now there was a looking-glass in that room, right behind her. It was the first time I'd seen myself properly—there I was, stamping towards myself, like a wild creature, my own face darting about on the surface, like a fish I couldn't catch. I got another fright so I stopped again, had to be tugged once more.