On the dark wood table, a plain plate lay inches away from Abigail. Her blond hair flounced around her shoulders. Her light blue dress with darker flowers brought out the bright blue in her eyes, which contrasted strangely with the rich brown of Hope’s. Hope, on the other side of the room, was sweeping the grimy floor with a homemade broom of stiff bristles. Abigail was watching Hope’s every move disconcertingly. Suddenly, she ordered, “Fetch me that plate.”
Hope’s eyes bore fire into Abigail’s. Abigail ignored Hope and her smug nose tilted up into the air as Hope replied with no choice, “Yes ma’am,” though Abigail was only a year older than her. But Hope did as she was told.
After Abigail had the plate in her hands, she leaned against the kitchen wall, holding it. Hope could feel her disapproving gaze upon her working back.
“Abigail,” someone said in a harsh voice from another room, “are you doing your embroidery?”
“Yes, Father,” Abigail replied stiffly, reaching for her sewing on the chair. Hope’s gaze averted to the floor and she swept faster.
“Good,” the tall man said as he came into the room. “I am going into town,” he declared, straightening his overcoat. “Be good. I’ll be back soon.”
Abigail gave a small nod and looked into her busy father’s eyes.
He left the room briskly and it gave way to silence. Then all Hope could hear was the scratch of the broom on the floor.
* * *
Later that evening, Hope was pouring water into tall, thin glasses for her master and his guest. Sitting down beside her, grasping a fork elegantly, was Master Thompson. He was talking to Mr. Stevens, a fat, jovial man who Hope couldn’t imagine would own slaves. Spread across the white tablecloth was a large, colorful array of soup and turkey and vegetables prepared carefully all day by Auntie Edna, who would only get to try the leftovers. Steam rose from Mr. Stevens’s heaping pile of food. A warm, meaty aroma wafted through Hope’s nose. But she did not care to envy this small advantage she did not possess—there were many things far worse, and anyway, her concentration was now on only the plump, stout silver jug she held coldly and tightly against her creamy brown palm. That is, until she heard something distressing.
Master Thompson was talking about selling someone to Mr. Stevens! Grimly, she considered who might be leaving. Could it be Sarah, the twenty-something-year-old woman who worked here? Or Sam, the hardworking young man who tended the horses and brought in the firewood, who had taught her jokes and riddles? Might it be Auntie Edna, who had cared for Hope when she was sick and her mother was working, gathering cotton or fixing clothes, a grandmotherly old woman with a kind nature? Hope would miss anyone who left so! She fought her thoughts and tried to listen quietly to the conversation.
“She is a hard worker. She could help you with many things. She knows how to patch things up and sew well,” Master Thompson insisted in a businesslike way.
Oh no. Is it Sarah? Hope pleaded, not Sarah, oh please no! Hope dreaded the thought of the woman who had acted as an older sister to her leaving.
“But she would be willing to go alone?” Mr. Stephens inquired.
Hope grimaced. Master Thompson wouldn’t mind. She had seen him separate families.
“We could arrange it,” Master Thompson assured abruptly. When Hope had refilled both glasses, slowly so she could hear what the men were saying, she went into the kitchen. Edna was there, washing dishes.
“Oh, Auntie Edna,” Hope cried. “Master Thompson’s gonna sell someone!”
“I’m sorry, baby.” Edna opened her arms. Hope flew into a hug.
Sobbing, she told Edna what she heard. “I think it might be Sarah!” Hope wailed. “But I don’t want none o’ ya to go!” “Shhh,” Edna soothed, rocking Hope back and forth. “Shhhhhhh.”
“Girl,” Master Thompson ordered sharply minutes later. “Take away the plates.”
Hope went into the dining area and lifted up the plates, stacking them. When she was back in the kitchen, she saw that Edna had left. But Sam was there, with wood for the fireplace. “Sam!” Hope said.
“I heard ’bout the sale,” Sam said, glancing at Hope grimly. “But I’m afraid it’s not Sarah.”
“Afraid? Why, do you want Sarah to go?” demanded Hope.
“No, no, no. I’m worried who it might be.”
“Who?” whispered Hope anxiously.
Sam hesitated before responding. “I think it might be your mama.”
Hope gasped. Gaping at Sam, she asked why he thought so.
“Well, Master Thompson said whoever it is, is a good seamstress, can cook, and can’t read, and you know yo’ mama can’t,” Sam answered, concern and sorrow in his eyes.
“But he said she ain’t got family!” Hope remembered in horror.
Sam stacked up the wood on the ground next to the fire. Avoiding Hope’s eyes, he said, “I heard him say they could arrange fo’ her tuh leave. Not that she ain’t got no family.”
“B- but!” Hope stammered. “He can’t do that!”
Sam stood up and brushed himself off. He looked at her as if to say, do you think it matters to him?
Hope ran to the living room, where her mother was calmly stitching up a sock. “Mama, oh Mama, they… Master Thompson… he gonna sell you!!!” she panted desperately.
Hope’s mama, Caroline, froze. Her face was pale. Her eyes were wide. Her hand was still clutching the needle when she said, “When, Hope?” sharply.
“I don’t know! wailed Hope, feeling helpless. “Soon!”
Caroline rose from her seat in a wooden chair. She held Hope close to her and whispered, in perfect, quiet diction, “Hope, we’re gonna have tuh run. To the North. To Philadelphia, or Canada, maybe, I don’t know where ’xactly, but I can’t let you stay alone.”
Hope hugged her mama back with all her might. Her eyes brimmed with grateful tears. She didn’t know how to react. Fear pulsed through her blood, but freedom and determination did also.
* * *
Behind the doorway, Abigail was listening intently. Her pale, delicate hand curled around the white wall where the door closed. Her silhouette was innocent and pure, her long eyelashes stood out. But her thoughts were quite contradictory to her seemingly angelic demeanor. When she heard Caroline, her stomach plunged. Her throat was tight. How could they disobey her father? But how dare he want to separate them? How could she betray her father? He would hurt her, he would shout, he would blame her for everything! Abigail shook herself and took a deep breath. What am I talking about? Of course I’ll tell him! I don’t even like Hope!
She smiled, and was about to run off to tell her father, when all of a sudden, her mind started spinning and reeling. She closed her eyes tight and clutched the wall, leaning on it. An image of her ordering Hope to fold her clothes, tie her hair, was taunting her. Then one of her father coming in late at night and yelling at her flashed. He was blaming her for her mother’s death. As if she didn’t care. As if she didn’t cry every night, remembering her stroking her hair. Then her mind gave way to a distant, forgotten memory that came back now clear, a time when she was six years old, watching her father whip a slave till his back was bleeding because he had run away. She could still see the plea of pain in the black man’s eyes. She remembered herself asking, “What did the man do?” and her father spitting on the ground near Sam’s foot and answering, “He is not a man. He will never be a man. He is a slave. Remember that.”
All these thoughts raced through her head as her father drank wine and ate meat, and Hope clutched her mother in fear, and Edna’s wrinkled hands clasped each other as she prayed, and Sam fed the fire, having no idea that someone was remembering his pain seven years ago.
Abigail stepped out of the shadows in honor of that violent day and, defying her father’s hatred for his slaves and doing what she felt was right, said, “I will help you.”