The air is damp and humid around this riverbed. The ground is soggy and wet. Papyrus reeds sprout from it, ascending majestically into the air. Close by, bamboo trees hang loosely over the running river, letting momentary sunshine and shade switch over the water’s surface. A toddler crawls on the soggy ground, her tiny feet wading through the mud with tremendous difficulty.
“Lii-ii-laaa”, a voice is faintly heard calling, muffled and distant.
“Liii-iiii-laaaa”. The voice grows pensive.
“She could be stuck in the mud”, another higher-pitched, equally worried voice fills in the silence between the calls.
“Is there a quicksand pit nearby?” Marjorie asks apprehensively.
“The Mistress has ever mentioned such”, Rebeca, miss high-pitch, replies, her eyes aghast with terror.
“If she dies we will hang!” they both say simultaneously, hands now shaking.
The toddler, now seated on the muddy ground, is licking mud off her thumbs. She chokes. Her cry begins as a slight stifled cough; then a long drawn out scream rising faster than her two caretakers can run. The damp humid air is no longer still; filled with screams, the shuffling of feet and rustling papyrus reeds as they both follow the direction of the screams.
“Oh God, she is filthy”, Marjorie almost cries out upon stumbling, almost stepping on Lila.
Rebeca picks her up and begins wiping her mud stained face with a tablecloth that before, was neatly folded in her apron pocket.
“We need to wash her in the river, lest The Mistress bumps into us sneaking her home.” Rebeca nods.
They wade the muddy ground, place the child on an obsidian rock and proceed to strip her and wash her spotless. Her incessant cries having waned into short spaced-out sobs.
“You’ll need to wrap her in your apron.”
And so it was that Lila, a tiny little mess of a thing, found herself asleep on the floor of a mud hut, her dark-skinned caretakers all the while on the lookout for The Mistress’ arrival from the concert hall. On this day they did manage to return her to the main house unnoticed. Why unnoticed? The Mistress would have had them killed if she’d seen her only child wrapped in a dark-skinned girl’s apron – hang openly for five days in the courtyard for every other servant to see, shudder in fear and stifle any thoughts of rebellion.
As the seasons came and went, Lila grew. She began to notice differences among herself and her loving caretakers – Marjorie and Rebeca – names which she would later realize were given to them by mamma, a consequence of her not wanting to learn pronunciations of the longer, vowel-filled names of the black folk. She began to notice they were different from her and her parents; that they weren’t pale-skinned. She began to notice how often mamma teased them both for their pronunciation of English gutturals. She too began to see them in a different light. They both occasionally wore a grim appearance – a somewhat kind of reminiscing of a past life, past deeds, past adventures now lost to time.
Looking outside her window she would see men laboring away; carrying hay from fields to the stalls, sweating profusely while tilling the land under the scorching heat of the sun, breaking the newly acquired horses, harvesting cotton, washing the carriages… She often wondered what the point of all the activity, in this place she called home, was. Why could she not play with the men’s children? Why were her, mamma and papa the only pale-skinned one’s around this place? Why were the men always grim-faced, wearing looks that eventually left their faces looking ugly?
As though in answer to her questions, one night, she was awoken by chants and yells, the choking smoke of burning wood, burning hay and commotion everywhere. Leaving the confines of her room hesitantly, she was met by a gust of hot dry air – the paintings on the walls, the carpets on the floor, the wooden stairway – all aflame.
Rebecca’s frame took shape at the side of her eye and next she felt her feet leave the ground. She was back in her room, Rebeca having sat her inside her wardrobe. With her voice pensive and heaving but still high- pitched, she spoke of all that Lila had been observing over the years, although Lila didn’t quite understand it at the time.
“I am a black woman,” she said.
But how was Lila to know what a black woman was?
Hadn’t Rebeca and Marjorie both chosen to be one of them? They lived in the main house most of the time, at least the time she needed them they were always at beck and call; hadn’t they chosen to share with herself, mamma and papa’s pain and pleasure?
Lila could see it in Rebecca’s face. She was undecided whether to leave her or share in her bitter destiny. She wasn’t decided on whether to go back to the highlands or stay, she repeated, quite profusely. Lila’s response: “I’ll come with you”.
She greatly belied her pleasure by saying, after a long long silence during which she wiped away the tears which had stained her cheeks. “I will not want you to come with me”. “Why not?” Lila asked.
She turned towards Lila, her eyes aflame with hot tears. “Because it’s not safe for you. They will kill you. My people will. Without asking questions, without wanting to know your name or what our relationship is.”
Stifling a sob and a tear from running down her cheek, Lila asked, “Your people. My people. What or who are these?”