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Prologue Colony of NSW, 1851

I wake with a start. Been dreaming. Dreaming bout a light that shine bright, strong, hot, even though all round is a cool, shadowy darkness. A light that call to me. Softly, softly, if only I can reach it. Touch it. Pull it out of the darkness and keep it safe. I reach out for that light as if still in the dream, but it start to fade and I wake to a body that feel heavy. Heavy as lead, and me clothes, me skin is wet, and I cannot even seem to lift me head. If only the wetness going turn into light and I can dream again. I feel round with me hands to discover rough cotton sheets and they too is wet, filled up with sweat.

What is that smell?

Must be the sickness. The sickness that been weighing me down, causing me to sleep, to moan, to dream the same dream. A dream bout the hot, strong light of me childhood. I sense it gathering, gathering all round me, and it feel so good.

Where is it? Where is the place I been dreaming of?

A place in a memory from a long-forgotten past that, up till now, must be stayed hidden. A memory that live on still. Faded, the colour drained right out of it. I need that light, the dreaming light, to see the power of colour memory deserve.

The door creak open. Footsteps on the wooden floor. Voices just out of reach.

‘He’s awake,’ a woman’s voice say.

An answer, a man’s voice. ‘It seems so. We must be quick, get him to drink the broth you have made.’

A hand. I look down, is the same colour as the sheets. A hand that reach out and wipe me forehead with a wide, cool cloth.

It smell of . . . what does it smell of? The smell is known to me and yet I can’t remember.

‘Lavender,’ the voice say, as though hearing me thoughts.

I feel hands lifting me up, away from damp sheets, propping me up on a chair, gently changing me clothes. The wet ones, for the dry ones. Close me eyes, listen as the voices and hands change the sheets before picking me up, putting me back in the bed. Everything is dry now. No more wet. No more light. No more dream.

I smell the broth. See the bowl. Hands feeding me broth with a spoon. A silver spoon like the one Massa have back on the plan­tation. Like the one I bury so very long ago. I must find it. Dig it up. Make sure it safe. I try to rise, get out of bed, to find that silver spoon, but the voices and hands in the room won’t let me.

‘Eat,’ the woman say.

‘Yes, eat,’ the man say. ‘It will do you good.’

Spoon after spoon, the hand come to me lips, and spoon after spoon, I gulp it down. It taste good, going help the sickness to go away.

When the spooning business done, I lay back, try to see the faces of the hands that been helping me, but it take too much effort. The creamy whiteness seem to blend one into the other, and I can’t remember who them is. The only thing I can do is accept the kindness. The kindness of hands and faces as them get me to lay back down under the clean, dry sheets.

But then, I cough and suddenly, me body betray me. I start to heave. Lean over the side, retch, vomit back up the good broth. All I can do is clutch at the bed sheets as me stomach empty itself into the wooden bucket resting on the floor.

‘Perhaps the broth is too rich,’ the man say.

‘Yes, perhaps too rich,’ the woman say. ‘But, if I make it any plainer, there will be little nourishment left.’

‘No matter, we must try and keep on trying,’ the man say.

The woman wipe me mouth and face, make me take tiny sips of water, before the man’s hands lower me back down, pull the sheets up round me.

‘Sleep now, William,’ the woman say.

‘Yes sleep,’ the man say. ‘We will not lose you.’

The door creak closed. Footsteps on the wooden floor. The room return to silence.

Alone again.

Is how it must be, for just a little while longer.

I must lay in this dry bed and lower meself down into sleep. Sink into a stillness so wide, so deep, memories going creep softly back to the colour of the living, the colour of life. And when them memories jump cross the line, I going see them, grasp them, hold onto them tight. Follow the journey them make from memory to dreaming, from darkness into light.

 

Part One

Parish of Saint James, Jamaica, 1800

 

Omens

The world is stirring when me born. Turn of the century, Massa call it. Him say is a world full of possibility. Of sights yet unseen. But this world him speak of not meant for the likes of me. Didn’t know this as I lay in the warm waters of the womb, watched over by the Ancestors. Didn’t know that Stella, me mama, still deciding if she going keep me or kill me. She just turn nineteen, late for a first pickney slave woman.

‘Is what we all do. Protect our babies by refusing dem life,’ Stella say, rocking me gently. ‘Drink bitter herbs. Make our wombs heave and cramp and push the unborn out. Bury dem bloody lump of a body under the big old mango tree. Send dem spirits back to the Ancestors. But you me baby,’ she say, while I lay there suckling. ‘You was different. Me felt you strength inside me, grasping at life. And when you slipped from out me womb, and me held you up in the dawn light, and you looked pon me with dem big brown eyes, me knew you going be the one that can survive. Grow tall. Live. And you have that copper skin. Not like me. Dark as the bottom of the old cooking pot.’

At first is a small world I live in, gurgling in the soft, leaf-shadowed morning light. A world of bird song. Of patches of sunlight. Of river water. Of milk and the sweet breath of Stella when she bend down to kiss me. And everywhere round me is a world full up with bright colours and the sun is warm, gentle on me skin.

Most nights, Stella hug me close, rub me back, sing till I fall into a trouble-less sleep. Not this night. This night, a cane come tapping down the path. And when the tapping stop outside the hut, is only a waiting stillness. The silence broken by the lonely hooting of a patoo, high up in one of the tree them.

Tap, tap, tap. In come an old woman dressed in white with a face that have not a wrinkle. Skin so black is blue, and eyes so deep them suck in all the light from the flickering candle flame.

‘New moon and the pickney still living. Praise be, lockjaw don’t catch’im,’ the old woman say. ‘No need to trouble meself with burial rites,’ and she sigh like thunder rolling.

Then them big eyes look me up and down, from the top of me head to the bottom of me feet. Eyes that can look right through you. Seeing back to who you was before and who you was before that.

‘Old man in a baby body. Eager to learn. But him going need plenty strength to walk the path him born on.’

‘What you mean?’ Stella ask, full of worry as she pick me up, hold me close.

‘Him going travel far.’

‘Lawd have mercy,’ Stella whisper. ‘Him going get sold,’ and her voice catch, have a little tremble.

The old woman look me up and down again, take a sharp breath, turn away.

‘Me don’t know,’ she say. ‘But the spirit dem, they never lie. Only a little bit.’ And the old woman give a long, low rolling chuckle before she take herself away, back up the path.

I must pass some kind of test, because after that, the old woman with crooked fingers and toes come every night for a visit. Make all kind of bush tea for Stella to drink, so when I suckle, the goodness of the tea pass down into me. Making sure I don’t fall prey to slave baby sickness. And when the moon turn full, she tell Stella to bathe me, out under the moonlight.

Calla is her name. That old cane-tapping woman. Always dress in a spotless white dress, a head-tie tight round her head. She don’t say much, just mutter, talking to the spirit them. But when she choose to speak, is like a roar of wisdom pouring out her mouth. Everybody stand up straight and listen.

Calla helped to bring me into this stirring world. Reached inside Stella womb to feel the top of me head. Held Stella hand tight. Wiped her brow when she was moaning and pushing, and on one last heave, it was Calla bony hands I fell into. Hands that lifted me up, wiped me face. Asked the Ancestors to give me the strength to survive the life laid out before me.

And as I start to grow and crawl bout, when Calla visit and Stella not looking, Calla wink at me, touch her head. Then touch me head in the same place. Do it many times. And a little glimmer start to glow inside. When Calla wink and do the head-touching business, the glimmer light up and I come to know is time to learn. Time to look. Time to listen good.

One day, after the sun just wake and the morning heat start to warm the earth, a backra come stand outside our hut. A not so tall, youngish-looking man with brown wavy hair, pale skin. Him eyes the colour of young caneleaves. Stella act different with him. She get all stiff. Her body tense up and she look like she try hide part of herself away, to keep it safe. Don’t seem to have a name, this man, because she only call him Massa. And him own Rock Pleasant, the plantation I born on.

Massa stand in the doorway of the hut not moving, just looking, before him stride cross the dirt floor. Pick me up, not too rough mind you. Hold me away from him. Turn me little body this way and that. Look into me face, me eye them to see if any of him is inside me. Any of him blood roaring round in mine. After a longish time, him smile and I beam back. Like Calla teach me to do. But then him face cloud over. And after, him only able to look at me sideways before him hand me back to Stella.

Finally Massa slap him little riding crop against him brown, canefield muddy boots. ‘A fine fellow,’ is what him say. ‘Strong. Healthy. A little handsome, even,’ before him turn and head out the hut.

Later that evening, Massa show up again and I sense how Stella insides droop and twist and churn. And when him look down at me sideways, suckling at her breast, she turn away a little and veil her eyes. This time him give her presents. A bolt of calico, a calabash of rum.

Then him march back out the hut and up the path again.

Soon after, Stella must pick herself up, return to slaving in the Great House. And every morning when she set out at first light, she carry me in a sling cross her back. She don’t use the path down through the slave village. Winding past wattle and daub huts, sitting close, one beside the other. Thatched roofs on top, small provision grounds out front, scrawny chickens running round, scratching for scraps. Instead, she take the long way round, through the coconut grove, the tall brown trunks, crowned with palms. And while she walking, she use the cool morning walks to start teach me things.

‘Things that help us, me baby boy,’ she whisper. ‘Help us to survive in the wilderness of the life we born into.’

When we reach the grove, Stella bend down low, pick up a dry brown coconut, funny-looking, hairy on the outside. Crack it open on a rock, dig out the white nut inside. Eat a little piece.

‘The oil, it good for cooking. Use the husks to polish the Great House floors. Make all the floors shine, till Mistress Margaret can see her face in them floors.’

Is not a job she like, and her mouth turn way down when she say it.

A little while later we come to the river, cross the bridge, stop in the middle. Listen to the sweet sound of water bubbling below.

‘Must pray for rain. Hope this not a time of drought, a time of hunger,’ she say, shaking her head like she seen too many times like this.

Then we pass a low stone wall that go right round a wide grassy lawn, bright green ferns hugging up the edge. Long-stalked bird of paradise, standing up in pots. Purple flowers, under a shady lignum vitae tree. Reach a wooden gate, pull up the latch. Step inside a big kitchen garden.

‘Yam, chocho, sweet potato and orange. Guinep, custard apple, pawpaw, soursop and mango. Everything that grow here belong to Massa, to Mistress Margaret,’ she tell me, tightening up the sling because me wriggling too much. ‘Is them provision ground. Don’t steal or you get into a whole heap of trouble.’

When we reach the back steps, Stella stop. Look up at the big, big stone house, have two floors, plenty rooms, long wide verandah. Many tall windows, front and back. And I come to sense she always stop to gather strength, wrap it tight round her shoulders.

‘Great House,’ she say with a little bit of pride. ‘Never ever go in here alone unless somebody tell you to,’ and she give me legs a little slap to make me remember, before she turn the handle on the thick wooden door, march right in.

Mama don’t need to be told if she can go into the Great House. She not one of the field slave them. She is what you call house slave. And I come to understand she might be a little bit special.

Every day is the same thing, till the next time Massa come to the hut, hold me up for inspection. Him too pleased with himself and me too young to know. Stella have this old-time god inside her. An Ancestor god. A wrathful god. And she not done with him yet. She smile. A thin snake smile like she getting ready to strike.

‘What name to give the little fellow?’ Massa ask.

Stella say nothing at first.

‘Johnnie? Peter? Sammy? James?’

Stella still say nothing.

‘Come, speak up, girl,’ Massa say, touching him riding crop against her neck.

Stella look at Massa, look at me, and veil her eye them.

‘Little Will,’ she say quietly.

‘Little Will? William?’

Stella nod. Smile her snake smile again.

Soon it feel like dark storm clouds gathering round the hut. The quiet world I been living in, suddenly wheel and turn, till the soft edges of me little life spin rough, twist jagged.

After that day, Massa turn mean, always picking on Stella, ordering her bout. Telling her what to do every minute. Shout at her, call her ‘uppity’. Tell her she turn too ‘wilful’ and him going beat it out of her. Even so, him still come to the hut many times, in the dead of night. Sometimes show up drunk. Push the door open, walk straight in. Stare at her with him pale caneleaf-colour eye them. Beat her, then throw her on the dirt floor, have him way with her.

And when she hear him stumbling down the path, she hide me behind the water barrel. Give me that look. ‘Not a sound!’

‘I’ll sell the bastard! As soon as he’s old enough. I’ll sell him to the highest bidder. Do you hear me, Stella?’ Him hold her by her arm them and shake her. Shout down into her face. ‘I’ll send him far, far away.’

‘Have pity, Massa. Have pity. Poor child. Him do nothing wrong.’

‘Who else? Who else paid you a visit?’

Stella never answer.

‘Speak! Tell me who the father is,’ him say before him rough her up some more.

More silence from Stella, till she smile her snake smile. ‘Him would be a more handsome pickney, if him was yours.’

With that him beat her again, throw her on the floor.

Night after night is the same thing. Then one night, Calla show up. Calla the old Obeah woman. Have them crooked fingers and toes. Her cane come tap, tap, tapping down the path just as Massa bout to lay a hand on Stella.

‘If you keep going, you going kill her,’ she say, very calm and proper. ‘Why you want to kill you favourite slave, eh, Massa Mowat? You worry bout who the father is?’ and she chuckle. ‘Only Ancestors know. Must wait till him grow up. Then you can tell. So stop all this carry-on. Otherwise,’ and Calla go quiet, take a deep breath, let it out when she bang her cane on the dirt floor, ‘no more babies going be born on this plantation!’

With that she leave, tapping her way back up the path.

Everybody afraid of Calla, even Massa. Afraid she going put Obeah on him. Afraid of the power she bring with her from cross the seas. She know how to work magic, late at night when the full moon sit low in the sky. And other times, when the moon gone, leave behind only darkness.

After Calla come, Massa and Stella stop fighting. Him still come to visit, but him no longer beat her.

Is only when I grow and the glimmer Calla give me light up that I start to understand what happen that naming day. Why Massa turn so angry.

Calling me little Will is how Stella took her eye for an eye. How she hurt Massa deep. After all the nights and days him going to her bed, she telling him I is not his son, but him father son.

Yes, Old Massa William, him used to come visit her too. Bring little presents, mostly rum, acted all nice with her, made her feel good, even with him crinkly liver-spotty skin, Stella tell me. Them used to sit, talk. Him, looking to discover what going on in the slave village. Stella, to claim the priceless gift of power over others by telling him. And after him have him way with her, Old Massa William kept promising, one day him going set her free. Give her plenty coins. A slave even, to do her bidding. She know was a lie, that nothing going come of it, not while Mistress Margaret, him wife, still alive.

Not long after me born, Old Massa William died, sitting in the Great House parlour, sipping him best rum. Stella tell me is why she name me little Will, to honour the old man passing. But in me heart, I know is a crippling lie. Calling me little Will was an act of revenge for all of Massa’s beatings. Of sacrifice to the ancient Ancestor god. Of throwing me, her first born, into a wilderness of un-belonging. All the while knowing that I, William, is Massa son. Him first flesh and blood, born whole.

And from that naming day, I come to be like a thorn in the side of them both. A thorn that burrow deep inside and start to fester.

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    9780143787532

    May 7, 2019

    Vintage Australia

    320 pages

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    May 7, 2019

    Random House Australia

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