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It's my earliest memory: arranging my brother's marbles into words. It is summer, and I am beneath the oak that stands in the back corner of the work yard. Thomas, ten, whom I love above all the others, has taught me nine words: SARAH, GIRL, BOY, GO, STOP, JUMP, RUN, UP, DOWN. He has written them on a parchment and given me a pouch of forty-eight glass marbles with which to spell them out, enough to shape two words at a time. I arrange the marbles in the dirt, copying Thomas' inked words. Sarah Go. Boy Run. Girl Jump. I work as fast as I can. Binah will come soon looking for me.

It's Mother, however, who descends the back steps into the yard. Binah and the other house slaves are clumped behind her, moving with cautious, synchronized steps as if they're a single creature, a centipede crossing an unprotected space. I sense the shadow that hovers over them in the air, some devouring dread, and I crawl back into the green-black gloom of the tree.

The slaves stare at Mother's back, which is straight and without give. She turns and admonishes them. "You are lagging. Quickly now, let us be done with this."

As she speaks, an older slave, Rosetta, is dragged from the cow house, dragged by a man, a yard slave. She fights, clawing at his face. Mother watches, impassive.

He ties Rosetta's hands to the corner column of the kitchen house porch. She looks over her shoulder and begs. Missus, please. Missus. Missus. Please. She begs even as the man lashes her with his whip.

Her dress is cotton, a pale yellow color. I stare transfixed as the back of it sprouts blood, blooms of red that open like petals. I cannot reconcile the savagery of the blows with the mellifluous way she keens or the beauty of the roses coiling along the trellis of her spine. Someone counts the lashes—is it Mother? Six, seven.

The scourging continues, but Rosetta stops wailing and sinks against the porch rail. Nine, ten. My eyes look away. They follow a black ant traveling the far reaches beneath the tree—the mountainous roots and forested mosses, the endless perils—and in my head I say the words I fashioned earlier. Boy Run. Girl Jump. Sarah Go.

Thirteen. Fourteen... I bolt from the shadows, past the man who now coils his whip, job well done, past Rosetta hanging by her hands in a heap. As I bound up the back steps into the house, Mother calls to me, and Binah reaches to scoop me up, but I escape them, thrashing along the main passage, out the front door, where I break blindly for the wharves.

I don't remember the rest with clarity, only that I find myself wandering across the gangplank of a sailing vessel, sobbing, stumbling over a turban of rope. A kind man with a beard and a dark cap asks what I want. I plead with him, Sarah Go.

Binah chases me, though I'm unaware of her until she pulls me into her arms and coos, "Poor Miss Sarah, poor Miss Sarah." Like a decree, a proclamation, a prophecy.

When I arrive home, I am a muss of snot, tears, yard dirt, and harbor filth. Mother holds me against her, rears back and gives me an incensed shake, then clasps me again. "You must promise never to run away again. Promise me."

I want to. I try to. The words are on my tongue—the rounded lumps of them, shining like the marbles beneath the tree.

"Sarah!" she demands.

Nothing comes. Not a sound.

I remained mute for a week. My words seemed sucked into the cleft between my collar bones. I rescued them by degrees, by praying, bullying and wooing. I came to speak again, but with an odd and mercurial form of stammer. I'd never been a fluid speaker, even my first spoken words had possessed a certain belligerent quality, but now there were ugly, halting gaps between my sentences, endless seconds when the words cowered against my lips and people averted their eyes. Eventually, these horrid pauses began to come and go according to their own mysterious whims. They might plague me for weeks and then remain away months, only to return again as abruptly as they left.