The state of Georgia,
I am Matilde, daughter of Tom, the butler at Twelve Oaks, the cotton plantation owned by the Wilkes family. I lived in a white-washed cabin in slave quarters with my parents and brother Tyrion.
When I looked into the chipped mirror hung on the cabin wall, the person who stared back at me was a sixteen-year-old girl with cinnamon-colored skin. My dark curly hair framed an oval face with well-chiseled features. But what I absolutely loved about myself was the bright smile showing even well-set teeth.
Our master, John Wilkes, was a kind man. He had arranged for a tutor for the kids of the house slaves, and I was one of the best pupils, picking up arithmetic and alphabets like the proverbial fish to water. Master Ashley Wilkes, the master’s son, would help me choose books to read from the vast library at the plantation house.
But all these achievements only earned me the epithet of ‘uppity nigger’ from my friends and family, and my dad was irked because he thought I was acting high and mighty.
Among the slaves, the marriage customs were different from those of our owners. Usually, the parents found a young man, and if he happened to be on the same plantation, they would just build another cabin, and both would move in together. There was no marriage ceremony or bridal gown or gifts.
But there were difficulties if the girl and boy were from different plantations. One of the owners had to buy the spouse from the other.
It felt great to be alive on this beautiful day. The sun was a welter of crimson and carmine across the Flint River on the east. The white dogwood blossoms on the tree contrasted against the sky’s deep blue. The golden masses of yellow jessamines spread flowery spangles on the earth.
A haze of smoke rose from the backyard, smelling of pork and mutton roasting slowly over hickory logs, reminding me that a barbecue was happening at the plantation that morning. The faint aromas of barbecue sauce stewing in iron pots wafted up from the rear of the house.
My dad called out to me, “Tilde, Don’t dawdle there. There is so much work to do”.
I skipped back, smoothing my brown cotton apron over the bright yellow printed calico frock and patting at the brown cap covering my hair- our uniform during celebrations.
The long trestle picnic tables covered with fine linen were placed under thick shades, at a distance from the barbecue pits so that the guests would be sheltered from the smoke.
My job was to manage the darkies taking trays to the guests. Most of the visitors sat on the backless benches on either side of the tables.
The younger lot lounged on the hassocks and cushions placed under the glade. The girls were dressed in floor-skimming crinoline skirts of bright colors, over tight buttoned-up bodices.
I became swamped, noting which house-girl was slacking off and which group of the guests’ plates were empty. As I skipped around, replenishing the sauce in a bowl and urging a pickaninny to hurry up, I noticed the pretty girl, Scarlett O” Hara, from Tara, the plantation across Twelve Oaks. As usual, all the boys were clamoring for her attention. But I knew that she had a thing for our master, Ashley and that he reciprocated. I had once seen them together on the bridle path, looking at each other with love-filled eyes. For many nights after that, I had laid in my bed, longing for that feeling of love.
But Master Ashley was to announce his betrothal to the sweet girl, Melanie Hamilton, at the barbecue, and he sat a little removed from the crowd, holding her hand in his. I could see that the spark present in his eyes for Miss. Scarlet was absent now.
While most married ladies sat fanning themselves in their dark silk dresses, talking animatedly about babies and sickness, the men were all standing and arguing about the war. The words repeatedly reaching my ears were confederacy, secession, Mason-Dixon-line, the union, infantry, and emancipation.
From what I heard from our servant quarters, the war seemed imminent. There was a talk that non-combat support for sustaining the army- like carpenters, cooks, guards, and nurses- would be among the slaves.
Gerald ‘O Hara, of the plantation at Tara, started an argument about the Yankees and Fort Sumter, and soon all the young men left the girls and went to flock him.
The swarthy gentleman, Rhett Butler, who did not seem very popular, stood alone, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, observing all the happenings with keen eyes and an insolent smile.
I took a tray in my hands and was on my way to serve master Wilkes when I noticed a stranger standing under a tree and observing me. He looked my age. Even though he was a darkie, something about him screamed that he was not from our part of the county.
As I passed him, he put out his hand to stop me, smiled, and asked, “Who are you, pretty girl?”
I tilted my head at a saucy angle and quipped, “Depends on who is asking?”
He was taken aback by my spunk. I remembered my mother’s regular sermon, ‘Girls should not show sass. They must be docile’.
He pretended to straighten an imaginary cravat, comb his hair, and, with false humility, introduced himself, “I am Zack from Atlanta. I am a coachman and drove a carriage full of guests to this party. Now that you know who’s asking, will you tell me about yourself?”
He was tall, his color ebony, his eyes dark and flashing. He had the bearing of a taut arrow stretched back, rearing to escape the bow. I was pleased that such a handsome lad noticed me.
I bowed and answered with a flourish, “I am Matilde, daughter of the butler of this plantation, Sam.”
“Matilde.” He said the name with a strange inflection. As if he was enjoying saying it aloud. “Will you meet me later near the river? I will play my banjo for you?”
However forward I was, there was no way I could do that because my mom kept a strict vigil over me. She was already looking for a partner for me.
Even before I opened my mouth to answer, I heard a commotion from the front of the house.
Zack and I ran over to see what was happening.
The war had arrived in Georgia. There was so much excitement, and most young men ran to get their horses. Soon all of them left, looking to join the army.
There was no ball, no party, and no dancing that evening. I was very disappointed. I loved to watch the girls and boys holding each other and dancing to the gay music. I was fascinated to see the love that shone out of the girls’ eyes. I watched with fervor the passion and tenderness with which the young men held the girls.
I had a deep desire to love and be loved like that.
My brother, Tyrion, was a grumpy, angry boy. He hated the white folks, refused to work for them, and generally caused my parents a lot of heartache. He seemed to be in a particularly foul mood today, as we said our prayers and ate hoecakes for our victuals.
After the meal which Tyrion spent glaring at me, he remarked loudly, “Pa, our Tilde has a new admirer. I saw him making sheep’s eyes at her. He is a darkie from ‘Tlanta. And our shameless hussy was flirting with him.”
My dad towered in front of me.
“Tilde, you’d better watch out. Solomon lives in Atlanta and works as a house slave. He has asked for you to be his wife. I don’t want you to cause any shame to us folks by acting up with other men.”
I hung my head down and refused to look up at my dad as I recollected Solomon as the fat middle-aged man who kept leering at me at the barbecue.
“Solomon’s master has already spoken to Mr. Wilkes, and he has the permission to take you back to Atlanta with him tomorrow.”
I felt sudden tears flooding my eyes.
Ma spoke up, “Solomon likes you. He has taken the trouble to get you released. Be happy and thank the Lord for that.”
“But ma, I haven’t even met him properly. I want to fall in love and then…”
Pa immediately thundered, “This is what comes out of reading those books. You have all new-fangled notions that are not realistic.”
Ma retorted, “You have become too cocky. Don’t forget you are a slave. A black nigger, and you put on airs like a white lady.”
“Ma, My heart’s desires do not depend on the color of my skin or the shape of my nose.”
As my parents ignored me and Tyrion looked at me with a mocking smile, I ran out of the cabin and walked away. Tears of disappointment flooded my eyes. Ineffective rage filled me. I kept going aimlessly.
I suddenly realized I had reached the river that ran at the end of the plantation.
There in the half-light of the evening, I heard Zack before I saw him. He was sitting on a low branch of a Sycamore tree, strumming on a banjo. His music was gay and upbeat, quite contrasting with my mood. In an act of rebellion, I went and sat next to him, leaning on his shoulders. He bent his head over mine but did not stop playing.
The tune caught at my heartstrings and wrung it out. I sobbed aloud.
Without asking me anything, Zack stopped playing, brushed away my tears, and put his hands around my shoulders. An unseen bird’s plaintive cry was heard from over the river. A half-moon peeped out from the clouds. I sat there and let the tears flow. I cried for myself, for the fate denying me ‘love’ because I was born with the wrong skin color. I also cried for my future with a man I hated. A man who was not going to bother knowing the real Matilde.
I had come to Atlanta, along with Solomon. Except for bidding me to cook for him or fetch for him, he hardly ever talked to me. Even in bed, he was crass and selfish, barely bothering about my feelings. When he would get drunk, he would beat me up, calling me an ‘uppity nigger’. I wondered sadly if he only wanted a sparrow for a wife; he should simply have got one. Why did he have to trap a bird of paradise, pull its feathers out and make a sparrow of it?”
But soon, Solomon had to leave for the war with the soldiers to cook at the battle-front.
I started working as a house help at Doctor Meade’s place. We lived on peachtree street, and I was pleasantly surprised when I realized that Miss Melanie and Miss Scarlett lived right across our house. I would help out at their house during parties and would meet Mr. Rhett at their place often. I rather liked him because what he spoke made sense to me. Unlike the others, he would actually talk to us, the slaves. Once, he surreptitiously gave me a piece of paper with pins and ribbons- scarce items during the war.
Around this time, Tyrion came up to Atlanta to dig rifle pits for the soldiers. He did not go back. He began living with me- a hulking, gloomy, cheerless companion. I learned from him that Ma and Pa were at the Twelve Oaks, managing the plantation, as old Mr. Wilkes had also left to join the army.
The war had reached nearby. We could hear the sounds of battle here in Atlanta. The city was awash with the sounds of booming cannons and crackling rifles. There had been heavy casualties among the confederates. The soldiers arrived in thousands at the railroad center and landed at the hospital.
There had been a shortage of doctors and nurses. Dr. Meade encouraged me to work at the hospital. My job was to meet the ambulances and the oxcarts that brought the dead and injured soldiers. The doctor taught me to understand the severity of the cases and direct the patients to various rooms according to their needs.
I was at the hospital early the morning Atlanta fell.
By afternoon, the hot, pitiless sun was glowering from the sky. There was definite news that the confederate soldiers had lost the battle, and the army was evacuating Atlanta. There was an overflow of the dead and injured. They piled up outside the hospital like carcasses of meat.
I quickly identified the extreme cases and directed them to the emergency rooms.
I checked for heartbeats and identified the dead, to be taken to the hospital’s back awaiting the burial squads. That’s when I noticed him. Red dust covered his face and body, and a gaping wound was visible on the head, edged with congealed blood. Flies were buzzing over the face. Definitely no heartbeat. I waved away the flies and looked at what was left of the face. Yes. There was no doubt. It was Solomon, my husband.
Waves of shock and sorrow pulsed through me. My eyes filled with tears for the stranger with whom I had shared a year of dispassionate couplings on the bed and indifferent conversations. Tyrion had stopped talking to me except for asking for money or food. So, there was no one with whom I could share the news. I was lonely and sad.
Then I got busy dealing with the cases, directing the posse of black girls with me to apply the salve over the burns, pour water into the mouths parched with thirst, listen to the ramblings of the wounded and help the relatives to identify their own.
Just then, I noticed Prissy, Scarlet’s maid, looking for Dr. Meade to attend to Miss. Melanie, whose baby was due any time. I directed her to Dr. Meade and immediately forgot her as another wave of wounded soldiers was disgorged outside the hospital.
There was a great booming noise, and all of us stopped our work to see the ammunition center and granary go up in flames. Atlanta was on fire.
Three years had passed.
My parents were killed in the Yankee invasion. So, Tyrion became my sole responsibility.
Dr. Mead did not need a maid or a hospital assistant. I was left without a means to support myself and my brother. So I had joined the freedmen’s bureau and the school they were running. Very soon, a Yankee was looking for someone to manage the staff of a new hotel that had come up in Atlanta. I got picked up.
Atlanta was growing at an unimaginable pace. New buildings were coming up, new businesses were starting, and plenty of Yankees were all around. Most of the staff at the Hotel were ‘freed slaves. I knew how to manage them- with the ability to understand their quarrels, hierarchies, hatreds, and loves.
I practically ran the hotel for our Yankee boss, Mr. Ryan. I was paid in dollars and had a small house in the shanty. I lived there with Tyrion. If anything, Tyrion had become an angrier person, and he would hang out with the insolent black men idling around the city, getting up to mischief. Some nights he never turned up at home. I never asked him where he went.
Mr. Ryan wanted to have entertainment at the hotel, and he brought a team of black musicians to perform.
To my surprise, Zack was among them. Meeting him again was such a happy thing for me. Before that, my life was only dedicated to working at the hotel and cooking for Tyrion. But Zack changed my life. He was such an excellent companion, good at imitating people. He would do an impromptu impersonation of Mr. Ryan, bringing his coarse ways and nasal twang to life. He would have me in splits.
I knew he would soon ask me to marry him. This time I would be willing.
After a tiring day at the hotel, I was back home in the evening and cooking yams for a simple dinner. Tyrion hadn’t been home for two days. Suddenly I heard an insistent, furtive knock at the back door. Was it him in one of his black moods? Nervously, I opened the door, I saw a slight hooded figure, standing in the fading light, shuffling anxiously.
The figure pushed me aside and got into the room, and I saw that it was Melanie Hamilton. I was shocked, and as I stuttered, she laid a kind hand on my shoulders and whispered urgently, “I am here at my husband Ashley’s behest. Your brother, Tyrion, had raped a white girl last night, and the Ku Klux Klan has retaliated by killing him. They may be coming in search of you too. I think you should leave Atlanta.” She thrust a packet of money into my hands and disappeared into the night.
Zack and I had immediately run away to New York. We married a week later.
Mr. Ryan had helped me get a job in hotel Grand Central there. Zack had become very famous as a musician, performing regularly at Broadway.
I had risen to the level of Hotel Manager.
It had been a busy time at the hotel, and my day was ending. The last job for the day was a discussion with the bar manager.
I pushed the door and entered. There was only one customer, drinking alone. I finished my discussion and was about to leave when I saw that customer was familiar, and with happy recognition, I realized it was Mr. Rhett Butler.
I immediately approached him and did a curtsy. There was a light of recognition in his eyes.
“Well, well, if it isn’t little Matilde all grown up! What are you doing here?”
I shyly replied, “Mister Rhett, I am the hotel manager here.”
“My, you have made it in life, haven’t you? Please do join me in a drink”.
I signaled to the bar manager to leave and poured a drink for myself from the bottle in front of Mr. Rhett. I was hungry for news about folks from Atlanta.
He told me that he had married Miss Scarlet O’Hara, and they had a baby called Bonnie, and they owned a mansion in Peach Tree street. We continued to chat about our mutual acquaintances from Atlanta.
Like it does whenever two southerners meet, the talk automatically veered towards the war.
Rhet suddenly asked, “Matilde, tell me this. The war was supposed to liberate the slaves for a better life. What do you think? Has emancipation worked? Have the lives of slaves turned for the better after the war?”
I took a while to answer the question. The hotel was silent. The white lace curtains on the bar windows fluttered and showed tantalizing glimpses of the bright, colorful city lights.
With a long, deep sigh, I replied, “I guess so, Mister Rhett! The war has liberated us, the slaves, and made us masters- Masters of our destiny. Again, what we did with our destiny depended on our personalities. While people like Zack and me went on to become successes, my brother Tyrion, with his destructive ways, got killed by KKK. But then, that is true liberation, isn’t it? The right to do whatever with our lives: Good or bad.
It is not that Zack and I have perfect lives. We quarrel, throw things at each other and speak harsh words when we fight. But we live our lives according to what we like. We don’t have masters to tell us what’s right or wrong.“
Rhett listened to me with attention.
“It’s true most of the plantation owners treated us kindly, unlike what the Yankees assumed. When the Northerners wanted to liberate us from slavery, I wonder what they meant? They just set us free. But they have absolutely no idea of treating us as equals, having us as neighbors, or socializing with us. Take my case. I have reached the level of a hotel manager. But do you know, there is not a single white man under me. I only manage the blacks.
We need people to understand that we have love-hatred, hunger-anger, and all other emotions- just like the whites. The day everyone realizes that people are all the same under their skin, whatever the color may be, it is true liberation.
I took a sip from my glass and said, “That is a long way off, Mr. Rhett, a very long way.”
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