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 She was white now, like him. 

His papers were scattered on the table where his pipe smouldered and his rum waited, more empty than full again.  It was only a glimpse of the nakedness he had seen so often.  Serene now, but still unyielding.  She appeared by the open veranda door in a darkness resisted feebly by the lamp beside him.  Her pale arms crossed her chest, her hands covering her breasts.  There was no sound, but he heard her anyway - in the language he had forced her to learn.

'O Massa, give back what you took from me.'

There had always been this stirring when he had seen her.  The stirring he felt now, even though she was dead.  Right from the very beginning when he had first seen her, eyes meeting his in defiance, chained in the marketplace.  Naked then as now. 


He closed his eyes and felt for the tobacco pouch in his waistcoat.  He felt the familiar leather, unbuttoned it and, finding his pipe by touch, began to fill it.

When he opened his eyes she had gone.  He reached to the table again and pulled out the plans for his English estate from beneath his accounts.  Miranda's letters had finally arrived today.  Three at once.  Forty rooms on five thousand acres and she said it would be finished by September.  Home at last.  Home for a cool English autumn.


He took another leather pouch from his waistcoat.  It was identical to the other, but it held gold not tobacco.  Though it bulged with its fullness, it was not much compared to what he had.  But he loved to touch the coins and to feel the familiar leather of the pouch.  He had not expected to be so rich.  And soon he would be home.

A thin curtain flapped by the open veranda door and he roused himself and stepped cautiously towards the opening.  He had never grown used to the humid heat,  but tonight his sweat grew cold and clammy between his shoulder blades.  Fear at having seen her.

He moved out onto the sun-bleached wood and peered into the darkness.  A strong breeze circled the limbs of the palms and seemed to bring the sound of the crickets and insects in waves towards him.  But her pale figure had disappeared.  His cupped hands glowed as he struck a match and drew the flame into the bowl of his pipe.  But as the flare faded another yellow light appeared in the darkness – lunging from left to right as it grew quickly, ominously and bore down towards him.

He dropped the pipe and reached for the windowsill to steady himself.

'Massa, di pickney dem go!'

It was Esau - one of his drivers, who by whipping his fellow slaves limited the flaying of his own flesh.


The Master's voice wavered slightly as he answered.

'Which children have gone, Esau?'

'Fi-shi pickney.  Fi-shi pickney dem go.'

Her children.

'I will go,' the Master said.  'Stay here.  I'll deal with you later – and make sure there are no more runaways tonight.'


As Esau shuffled away the Master went back into the estate house and took down his cart-whip from a hook by the doorway.  He felt the smooth leather with his fingers and held it to his nose, a grim smile on his face. 

He hadn't always been the Massa.  He was eighteen when his father had brought him here and instructed him, Show weakness, show compassion, and you will be dealing with a rebellion.  On his second day he had been taken to a compound where a slave was tied to a post.  The man had not cut his quota of sugarcane and father had made son flog the man in front of the other slaves. 

The Master lit a lamp and headed out into the darkness.  Runaways were usually easy to find.  They didn't know the land, as he did, beyond the confines of the sugarcane fields and their compound.  If they reached as far as the boundaries of his estate they passed into one of his neighbours.  There was no easy escape.  And these were children.

He trudged down the track to the main gate, the rustling sugarcane rising beside him, arching in the wind - bony dancers lit by the stage light of his lamp.  They came from the darkness, briefly surrounding him as he walked and then passed, their pale, leafy heads bobbing and fading into the night.  He thought of her sudden whiteness, her sudden speech.  He had acted so that she could never talk.  But now she spoke.

'O Massa, give back what you took from me.'


Since his father's initiation, he had heard the howls of pain in the sounds of the crickets and insects, throbbing in the night.  But he had come to accept that this way was the natural order of things, and now his violence was the power that defined his life.  Yet at night, the voices were always there, mingled with the night sounds, laments of loss and pain.

He reached the gate and, holding up the swaying lantern, saw where the fence beside it had been breached.  Angrier, hastier now, he ducked through the hole and began to pound up the track.  But it was hard to run in a small circle of light with blackness beyond.  So he stopped, put out the lantern and waited for his eyes to adjust to the light of the rising,  gibbous moon.

She hadn't cried out when he made those terrible cuts.  He had already taken her tongue, so she couldn't speak of what she knew.  But her eyes had held his until he had to look away, just as they had at the beginning in the marketplace.   Even at the end she had resisted him.  And then she had bled to death.

'O Massa, give back what you took from me.'


And now a child's voice.  Unmistakeable amongst the ebb and flow of sound,  A girl, frightened, calling for her brother.

'Eli!  Eli!'


He wrapped the trailing end of his whip around his fingers, clenched them, and began to run again.  Towards the sound of her child.  Stumbling on the uneven track.  Sweat beaded on his skin and channelled down his flesh like bursting veins. His lungs strained to find nourishment in the scented, heavy vapour that filled them.

Eli, Eli?  A wafting, plaintive cry.  Where had he heard that before?  My God, My God?

Eli, Eli lama sabacthani! 

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!


One of the Master's neighbours had shown no mercy, shown no compassion.  But still he had seen rebellion - a machete in the back of his head.  The rebellion had been easily quashed by the army,  and the perpetrators executed.  The neighbour’s land had quickly been absorbed by others, but his mansion stood empty, rotting in the damp.  And it was there the children had fled.

'Eli! Eli!'  The voice of a child, running away from horror, but only into a darkness filled with murdered men's souls and pursuit and punishment.  Two flat-pitch notes, beyond hope, as she called for her brother.


The Master stumbled through the darkness towards the sound, down the track towards his murdered neighbour’s house.  He knew the hollow, empty place was there, but he could see nothing of it.  He could only hear.  A broken shutter, banging in the wind.  The concerted sound of a thousand palm leaves pounding like breaking waves.


When the rebel slaves were executed, he had brought some of his own slaves to his neighbour's estate to watch them die.  Twenty six men had been whipped until their skin fell from their backs.  The lashes were delivered to the beat of a drum, and as they fell, each man howled, waves of sound, the cries of the half-dead.  And then they were hanged.

The girl's voice again.  Now rising in pitch.

'Eli! Eli!….Ma..Mama?  Mama!'


He was near the house now, saw a darker tone of grey against the sky, the jag of the broken roof, and spaces, darker still, windows into the abandoned emptiness inside.  And then - her lightness on a balcony above, silhouetting two small figures in front of her.  Her arms lowered now in a gossamer caress around her two children, revealing her chest and the dark shadow of her horrible wounds.

'O Massa, give back what you took from me.'


The Master's eyes stared, unblinking, and his legs folded beneath him.  He slumped sideways from the track, banging his head against a palm trunk and falling into dank leafmould.  He lay there, feeling the ants moving beneath him, around him, already beginning to bite.

He lay for a long time.  Palm waves and cracks, swirling sounds and voices and cries.  Panting, breathless, suspended in a segment of consciousness between awareness and oblivion.  Beneath his eyelids he saw the whip swinging down, welts and weals and heavy chains, the knife cuts and crimson blood.  And when he opened his eyes, the three figures still silently watched, unafraid.


In the distance a new light grew, an orange glow.  And other voices, panicked and confused.


He pulled himself upright and felt for his tobacco pouch.  He touched first the purse, and smiled grimly, then pulled the pouch from his pocket.  He reached for his pipe.  But it was missing.  He had dropped it.


In the distance his mansion burned.


A wavering slice of orange cut into the night sky and the whipcrack sounds of collapsing timber reached him, melding with frightened voices.

The Master unsteadily raised himself to his feet.  His face taut, his eyes staring, first at the tower of fire rising from his home, and then to the trinity of figures standing, silently watching.  He had long ago forgotten how to weep, how to feel remorse.  Instead the tic beneath his weathered, furrowed brow, twitched.  The only unsuppressed place his emotions knew.

She wanted back what he had taken.  But what she had was doubly his.


When he reached his neighbour’s shattered house he looked up and saw the children’s eyes, gazing white, their mother's wraith, almost enclosing them.  He began to climb an ivy stem towards them, and the three leant to watch him.

And sounds and voices enveloped him as he moved,  taunting, shouting, provoking: 

'O Massa, O Massa, O Massa, O Massa...'  mingling with the ebb and flow of insect call and palm leaf squall, the crack of timber or whip and other, distant voices, calling for water, calling for half-forgotten homes.  But clearly, piercing through the sound, her insistent demand.

'O Massa, give back what you took from me.'

He reached the rusty, wrought metal of the balcony.  Clasping tightly, he  lifted himself towards them.  But a crumbling railing broke, leaving him dangling by one arm.  He looked up, as if for help, but the three figures had disappeared.


By swinging himself he managed to curl a leg through the gap left by the broken rail, and gradually heave himself onto the balcony.  Gasping for breath he looked up, and again saw the three, but somehow they now gazed down from the balcony of the floor above.  He began to climb again.

'O Massa, O Massa, O Massa...'


This time, when his hands reached the rails, the figures were still there, just beyond his reach.  But he had no strength left to lift himself.  With a foot pressed on an ivy stem he lifted one trembling hand from its hold, fumbled in his pocket, and took out the tobacco pouch.

'' he said weakly.

The girl's small hand reached down and took it.

Again he reached to his pocket and took out the purse.


The boy took the purse.

'Massa…Massa.  Mine...mine,'  came the voice, and the spectre slowly faded.

'Mamma, Mamma!' cried the girl, but her mother had disappeared.

'Come...come with me,' called the Master weakly.  'You belong to me.  My slaves and my...'


But their father's exhausted grip failed and he fell away from them. 


Without stopping to look the children turned and walked away, each holding fast to one of the breasts that had suckled them.

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© 2007  Ged Duncan.  All rights reserved.



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