I heard my Auntie Mim as if she was far away, even though she was next to my body.
“Tuesday! Wake up! What happened?”
Her voice was strained with urgency. I knew my eyes were closed, but I could see her as if looking through a window into a dark room, her hand on a face I knew was mine, but which I couldn’t feel.
“I’m okay Auntie Mim,” I said, but she couldn’t hear me. I could sense the uneven floorboards underneath me. I could see my hand holding the hand of another about my size, and that we formed an “H” lying there, our arms the middle line.
Auntie Mim knelt between us, her body drooped and vibrating with sobs. “Cuffee,” she whispered. I felt an answering smile, like the thrumming of hummingbird wings, and then it flew away. When I turned to see where it was going, I woke up in my body, and opened my eyes.
Mimba was the sister of my mama, whose name was Bena. My mama and I both had the same name, really, because we were both born on the same day of the week. But we were born on the opposite ends of the ocean, so mama made the names different to show it.
I don’t remember my father. Auntie Mim said he was a tall man with wide shoulders and big, strong arms. He was allotted to another man who needed someone strong on his farm.
I remember a little more of my mother, but not much. She was allotted to someone in Georgia who wanted a pretty house slave. I don’t have pictures of my mama, but I can see her face in my memory, so close to my mine, pretending to nibble on my chin and nose. “You’re so sweet, I could eat you up!” she would say. That’s mostly what I remember about my mama. She was taken away in the second year of my life.
Auntie Mim was pretty like my mama, and the master took a liking to her so much that he wouldn’t allow her to marry no one. He gave her a cabin for her own, so he could visit on some nights. He also let her keep me instead of him selling me or allotting me to someone else.
Auntie Mim and I were house slaves. I helped in the nursery, playing with the master’s children by his wife, helping change their diapers and doing the washing. Master John had children with some of the slave women, too, but he never claimed them. Mistress Abigail, his wife, looked the other way, unless she thought Master John was getting too attached to his child’s mama. Then she’d sell the child without Master John knowing. Some said she’d done worse than that, but either way, no one would see the child ever again.
When I was 6 years old, Auntie Mim got pregnant with Master John’s child. Everybody pretended that the child belonged to Big Cuffee, the cook that Auntie Mim was friendly with. But everybody knew who the father really was. Then one day, Big Cuffee was gone. Nobody knew where or why.
When Auntie had her baby, I could feel that something was wrong with him. He seemed mostly normal, all toes and fingers accounted for. Mama June, who helped with the birthing, said he was handsome. Auntie Mim saw only her own little baby, wrapped up in a cloud of love. She named him Cuffee.
Cuffee stayed in the nursery where I could hold him and keep an eye on him. Mistress June wasn’t happy about it, but Master John had made a promise to Auntie Mim that little Cuffee wouldn’t ever be sent away. But a promise from a master don’t mean much, especially with a jealous mistress standing by. But Auntie Mim and I held onto that promise like a butterfly cupped in the palm of our hands, something we wanted to appreciate, but couldn’t look at for fear it would fly away.
Cuffee had the colic real bad, and Mistress Abigail complained about the noise, so I took to wrapping him up around my body with a sheet. Mama June showed me the best way, keeping him snug on my back so I could still change the white children’s diapers, still do the washing and cleaning and play with the little ones when they was fussy. That way the mistress couldn’t complain that Cuffee needed to go because he was noisy or taking all my time – ‘cause he did neither one.
Even though Cuffee seemed better for awhile, I still felt something wrong with Li’l Cuffee something moving inside him. It made his body wiggle and squirm almost constantly, even as his hands and feet tensed up.
One day Cuffee yelled out in pain, then cried and cried, no matter what I did. Later he calmed down, but when I changed Cuffee’s diaper I found a crystalline, orange-colored rock, like a clump of hardened sugar, and little spots of blood. I hid the diaper, washed it right away so’s no one would see. ‘Specially not Mistress Abigail, who looked for any excuse to get rid of one of Master’s slave children. I told Auntie Mim, though, and Mama June.
We tried to give Cuffee different foods to help, like mashed milk curds, sprinkled with one of Mama Junes special herb powders. But I could tell Cuffee was just getting worse. He didn’t grow as fast as other children, which made it easier to hold him, but he also didn’t walk when other children did, which made holding him necessary sometimes. All this made Mistress Abigail angry – or at least gave her an excuse to show it.
When Cuffee was almost two years old, he started biting himself. He had always had strange little hand and feet movements, jerking them here and there, or waving them around. Sometimes he banged his arms or feet on the floor or the wall. And when he got stronger, he would lift his head and bang it on the floor, so we had to put soft blankets under him. He would put his hands in his mouth, too, but that seemed like normal baby behavior until he started making himself bleed. He’d bite so hard, he’d like to bite his fingers off. Plus he chomped on his lips. He always had open wounds on his lower lip, especially. They never had time to scab up, let alone heal.
Strange, but the worse Cuffee got, the more it seemed Mistress Abigail settled down to liking him. She stopped caring about how much time I spent with him, and she would even come up to him in his crib where he could sit up in the corner and see what was going on in the room. She would bend over him, her big circle of skirt bunching up in waves on the floor, and she’d say, “Little Cuffee. You are your father’s child, aren’t you?”
At first I was confused, since everybody, including the mistress, knew who Cuffee’s real father was. But Auntie Mim explained to me that it was the mistress’ way of bad-mouthing Master John without saying it plain. Auntie Mim said it was a blessing that Cuffee was the way he was, because it meant no one would want to take him, so he would never be sent away.
I tried so hard to get Cuffee to talk. But mostly he just mumbled and blurted out sounds that made no sense. “Say Tuesday,” I would tell him. We had cut off the legs of his crib so it could hold his weight once he got bigger, and since it was on the ground, it could also hold me. I would sit across from Cuffee playing hand games to the rhythm of whatever word I tried to teach him. “Cu” –clap- “Fee” –clap-, over and over. “Tues” –clap- “Day” –clap-. And repeat.
But it wasn’t until one day when I fell asleep in his crib with him that he finally talked to me.
The master and missus were gone to visit Granny Swann, who was ailing, and they had taken their four little ones with them. That meant that I was supposed to be doing the laundry or helping clean the house. Even so, the other house slaves plus Auntie Mim decided to give me a break and let me just be Cuffee’s caretaker for one day. I hadn’t known how worn out I was until I sat in the crib singing songs to Cuffee, and I started nodding off. Normally, that would be my cue to get up and move around, do something active and keep myself going. But instead, with nothing else pressing, and no one to protest, when Cuffee lay down for his nap, I lay down, too, just to rest my bones a bit.
Then I was standing in the cotton field, where the field slaves were bent over cotton bolls, pulling at the white fluff. The new pickers always had bloody hands, where they had poked themselves with the burr that held the cotton at its base. Pickers who had been at it a long time knew how to grab at the bolls without getting stuck by the burrs. Plus, they built up callouses on their fingers. I stood next to a girl about my age at the time, around 10 years old, who crouched down next to a cotton plant. I couldn’t see her face, bein’ it was covered by a cloth wrapped around her forehead and at the base of her neck. But I could see that her fingers were bleeding as she put boll after boll of cotton into her shoulder bag.
I heard steps on the dirt behind me, so I turned to see a little boy of about four years old walking toward me. He held a stick that he dragged along the ground, making a little snake trail following him up to me. He looked up at me and smiled, looking so familiar with his tan skin and wavy black hair and his milk-chocolate-colored eyes.
“Cuffee!” I looked at him with wonder. He stood straight and tall, cute as a baby button, joy radiating from his body the way the buzz of cicadas emanated from the trees above and around us. He had no bite marks or scars of any kind, and he sparkled with something that made me cry and pick him up, hugging him and swinging him around, despite the fact of his weight, which was so much more than the Cuffee I knew.
When I set him down and looked at him, something had changed. His posture slumped a little, his spine slightly twisted. I noticed the blood running over the scars on his hands, and my tears stopped in the shock of moving so quickly from joy to concern. I took his hands in mine, inspecting them, then looked up to his face, where a smile still sparkled from his eyes.
“Why are your hands bleeding?” I asked.
His smile burst open into the warmth of unsung laughter.
“So yours don’t have to!”
I opened my eyes then, and saw that I was lying on my side in the crib, facing Cuffee. He looked at me, thumping his feet on the crib’s floor and making the blurbling sounds he often did. I got a feeling that we had both had the same dream.
When I was eleven years old, Auntie Mim got herself a sweetheart from amongst the field workers. He was an allotted slave by the name of Paul. It had been an especially big harvest that year, so Master John had hired him out from a mistress who only used him to keep her horses.
Paul was a quiet man, so Auntie Mim hardly noticed him when she brought out lunch to the workers one day. She pulled the wagon with the sandwiches while another kitchen slave pulled the wagon with the water barrels. Mim saw him there, with strong shoulders, like her first man, Cuffee, many years before, but she hardly gave him a thought. It was only the next day, when Paul offered to pull the sandwich wagon for her that she noticed him. And that was mostly because she wondered why he would offer to pull the sandwich wagon, which wasn’t that heavy, instead of the water wagon, which the other kitchen girl struggled to pull. She didn’t say anything, though. And that was the beginning of a courtship that heated up as slowly and as steadily as the Fall days were cooling down.
By the end of harvest season, Auntie Mim and Paul had promised themselves to each other, in everything but their outward actions. They had to be very careful not to reveal their true feelings for each other to Master John, or to anyone who might tell Master John. So every lunch time, Paul would make sure to pull the water wagon instead of Auntie Mim’s sandwich wagon, though anyone who looked closely would notice that the wagons were always side by side, and so were Paul and Mim.
By that time, I had been talking to Cuffee for years, mostly in dreams, though once in awhile I would catch of flash of what I knew must be one of his thoughts, or I would inexplicably know what he meant by a gesture or a gurgle that no one else could understand.
Cuffee’s pain kept getting worse, and sometimes I would ask him in dreams or altered states what I could do to help him. Sometimes he would suggest that I rub his feet, sometimes he’d say he needed to drink more water, and sometimes he would suggest that I exercise his limbs a certain way, like moving his legs in forward circles while he lay down. And usually those things would help for a bit.
Around the time of the harvest of my eleventh year and Cuffee’s fifth, Cuffee’s pain got a lot worse. In dreams, where normally he was happy and playful like a normal five-year-old, he started to cry. First they were gentle tears, as if he was sad he couldn’t find a stick he liked to play with. But more and more, Cuffee’s tears would be stronger, his body more twisted in pain.
“What can I do to help?” I would asked, hugging dream Cuffee in my arms.
“I don’t know, Tues,” he would say. More and more in dreams I would simply hold and comfort him, and then I would wake up sad that I had gotten no more information to help him in the nondream world.
Harvest passed, and Paul went back to his Mistress’ farm. Mim and Paul hardly ever saw each other, except once when Auntie Mim was borrowed there for a party that the Mistress needed extra kitchen help for, and another time when Paul was borrowed to Master John to help with one of the horses who had thrown a shoe and was particularly hard to hold down. I remember Auntie Mim finding an excuse to peek outside for a bit to watch Paul as he shooshed the shoeless horse and calmed him down so his foot could be fixed. I happened to be in the kitchen, getting sandwiches for the children up in the nursery. I walked in to see her on her tippy toes, a dreamy-eyed smile on her face as she gazed out the window above the tub sink.
That winter was rough for Cuffee, and therefore for me and Auntie Mim. Cuffee seemed to be at war with himself. He banged his head on the bars of his crib. He threw his arms and legs around like weapons striking anything solid. And hit bit his fingers so bad that some of his nails fell off, and we feared he would bite off his fingers. There were scars up and down his arms, constantly oozing blood and puss from never getting the chance to heal. We took to putting socks on his hands, tucking them under the long sleeves of his shirts and tying them with string. But even though he could no longer break the skin, he bruised himself continually, and often reopened the few scabs that got a chance to form.
Still, he would come to me in my dreams, and sometimes he would be calm enough to talk to me, in words more advanced than his age would suggest, and he would tell me things I wouldn’t have known otherwise.
“Mama loves Mr. Paul,” he said one time. That I knew, of course. But then he said, “He’ll come work for Master John this spring.”
“He will? For how long?”
“He’ll stay here.”
That didn’t make sense to me. But sure enough, come spring, Old Lady Hutchins died and left Paul and a couple of her other slaves to Master John, since she had no children left alive of her own to leave them to. Auntie Mim was in heaven, knowing that Paul was just around some corner, only feet away from her, standing on the very same land. She would tell me this at night in our little cabin, when she and Cuffee and I lay side by side on a straw bed in our dark cabin, listening to the frogs singing and the crickets chirping along.
But it wasn’t long before Mistress Abigail noticed the spark between the two of them and at long last saw her opportunity to get rid of Auntie Mim, the pretty kitchen slave who still tempted the affections of her husband. Her husband protested, of course, and took to visiting Auntie Mim at night more regularly, to spite his jealous wife.
On Master John’s visits, Auntie Mim would carry Cuffee into the cooking room of our cabin and hang up a quilt between it and the room with the bed. Once, in my twelfth year, when the tulips first started their blooming time, I noticed the master looking at me differently than I had remembered. Auntie Mim was carrying Cuffee into the cooking room, and I was gathering up blankets to follow her, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a strange look on Master John’s face. “You sure are growing up nice, Tuesday.”
A shiver ran down my spine and stopped my voice for a second, until I made myself say, “Thank you, Master John, sir.” Then I hurried myself into my temporary sleeping spot with Cuffee.
Cuffee and I always had conversations during those visits. They weren’t exactly dream talks, I guess, because I could see/feel the room around me, and I knew that my body was between the stove and the quilted blanket made into a temporary wall. But in that state, I couldn’t hear the sounds beyond the blanket – only the voice of Cuffee.
“You and mama and Paul need to run away,” he told me on one of those cold, uncomfortable nights behind the quilt.
“And you, too, Cuffee,” I said. I had assumed it was a child’s wishing game, and treated it as such. But Cuffee very seriously replied, the dark room surrounding us, “I can’t.”
Come harvest time, rumors started spreading like flies about Mistress Abigail having had enough of her husband’s wandering ways, and that she was going to hurt him the worst way she knew how – by selling Auntie Mim.
In dreams, Cuffee told me over and over that Paul needed to take a horse and Auntie Mim and me and ride north. He told me what town we needed to go to, what day, what time. It would be when the harvest was in full-swing, when Master John wouldn’t be able to spare any worker to come looking for us for fear of his cotton crop spoiling before it was picked.
“You can’t take me,” he would say. “I’ll be home.”
I told Auntie Mim everything to see what she would say. She knew that I spoke with Cuffee, and she had seen enough proof to know that it wasn’t just my fantasy. When she heard the plan, she cried and held Cuffee, telling him, even though he couldn’t speak to her, that she could never leave him behind.
After that, Cuffee mentioned “going home” almost every time we spoke.
On the day that Auntie Mim found me and Cuffee on the floor, I had been fully awake when the conversation began.
It was early in the morning, but an hour or so after Auntie Mim had left for her kitchen duties. I had gotten up when she did, changed and cleaned up Cuffee, dressed him in unsoiled clothes and fed him a little of the gruel auntie had cooked up. I was just bending over to put him on my hip to carry him up to the Master’s house, when I heard, as loud as if it was right in my ear, Cuffee’s voice shouting, “No!”
I fell to my knees with the force of it, then found myself in the gnarled old angel oak tree in the front yard. Cuffee and I sat on one of the higher branches on a green patch of moss, both of us swinging our legs in the fading light of the setting sun.
Cuffee looked at me and smiled, happier than I had seen him in a long time.
“It’s time for me to go home!”
I didn’t know, with all of me, what he really meant. “You look so happy,” I said.
“I am happy,” he said. “Except I don’t really know where it is.”
“You don’t?” I said. “Then how do you know it’s your home?”
He laughed at me, a child’s giggle, like I was being silly. Then, more serious, he said, “Will you help me find it, Tuesday? It’s so close, but I just don’t know where to look.”
I felt sorry for him, not knowing what to say. “I want to help you,” I finally said. “Let’s get down and look.”
I made my way down the tree, carefully picking where I put my feet, and I coached Cuffee on his way down, too. As soon as we reached the ground, the sun began to light up the sky, so bright, that I held up my hand to shelter my eyes. My little cousin danced beside me, joy in his voice and in the movements I could see and feel in my heart.
“Home!” Cuffee hugged me. “I love you, Tuesday,” he said. “You and Mama and Paul have a different place you need to be. I’ll come talk to you when I can.”
As he walked into the bright light, the world around me darkened, little by little, and I heard Auntie Mim’s voice asking me what had happened.
Paul and Mim and I made our way in the middle of cotton harvest, just like Cuffee said. It was a rough journey. But whenever I was worried or sad, Cuffee would visit me in a dream and say, “Everything will work out fine.”
And it did.