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Miss Cluny Remembers
written by: P.A. O'Neil
“Now you sit comfortable-like, Miss Cluny, and talk into this microphone just like you were talking to me,” the smartly dressed young man from Howard University instructed.
I looked at him in disbelief, did he think that, just because I was in my eighties, I was feeble-minded? “I am talking to you.”
“Yes, of course, ma’am. I meant you didn’t have to yell to be heard on the recording.”
I nodded my head, closed my eyes, and let my memory drift back to things and events long since buried.
Autumn had come to the plantation, you know, the time of year when the full moon is so large and bright, the fields can be harvested, as if it were right before supper time instead of time for sleepin’. But there was no moon the night my daddy went away. I’ll always remember the night sky was ever so black, just like the old iron cauldron my mama used to fix our suppers.
There had been a type of excitement in the air that afternoon. All the big folk was hurrying this-ways-and-that, talking in whispers, passing little bundles, which I later learned were food and clothes, to each other.
I was one of the in-betweens, too young and small for working in the fields, too old for being packed around on my mama’s back. Mostly, I just helped with taking care of the little ones, keeping ‘em out of trouble or underfoot of the big folk.
The day was windin’ down and most folks was heading back to their cabins looking forward to a warm supper of boiled greens, hog hocks, and beans. No one wanted to be caught outside after dark, that’s when the Ol’ Hoodoo come ‘round to take you away. I still get the shivers just thinkin’ about it. Mama and the other women had come back to the cabins early, and I, seein’ no reason to stay around to take care of the babies with their mamas there, took off into the woods to play a little before being called to supper.
I didn’t go far into the woods, just far enough so I could hide behind the nut trees so the big folks couldn’t see me, but if I poked my head around, I could see them. Daddy had come in from the field, but instead of washing up like normal, he and some other men gathered to talk. I couldn’t hear what they were sayin’, but I knows it was important, ‘cause he turned back to our place with a look on his face I ain’t never seen before. It was somewhere between the sadness the big folk had when Ol’ Moses died, and the anger I once seen on him when the overseer, Mister Cawl, whipped young Isaac for helpin’ himself to the ripe vegetables in Master’s garden. Soon Mama joined Daddy, her eyes were all red like she had been weeping. He put his arm around her and together they walked back into the cabin.
While I was watchin’ all this, I could feel with my toes the round shells of nuts which had fallen from the trees. Cupping the bottom of my dress, I stooped and started filling it with nuts. I thought if I could bring them to Mama, she wouldn’t be sad no more.
I guess my attention was so focused, I didn’t hear anyone walk up. I was reachin’ for some nuts when I sees a pair of black leather shoes. I looked up to see the soft cotton stockings, a white pinafore of Miss CeCe, the master’s daughter; she was a child like me. I froze in my stooped position looking up at her, but she just smiled wide, her blue eyes twinkling, as she too stooped to the ground and started filling my make-shift basket with nuts.
“Cecelia! Miss Cecelia, where are you?” It was Ol’ Londa, Miss CeCe’s mammy, callin’ for her.
Miss Cece stood up and shrugged. She turned to leave but I called her back, all quiet like. “Here, put some of these nuts in your apron, so as you don’t get in trouble for being out here.”
I placed half my bounty into her make-shift basket, and nodded goodbye. She just smiled and nodded back as she trotted out the other side of the grove.
“There you are, child, why didn’t you come when I called?” Ol’ Londa exclaimed as Miss Cece left the shelter of the nut trees. “What you got there? You been pickin’ up nuts? I declare, your shoes dusty and stockin’s are all snagged.” Her voice grew fainter and fainter as they walked back to the Big House.
I could hear my daddy callin’, so I balanced my harvest in my dress, using both hands careful like so as not to drop any of the nuts while I walked. I remember I had to walk slow and stooped over so as not to raise my dress higher than was decent. I must’ve looked a sight walking all hunched over, it made my daddy laugh out loud. I think he had been plannin’ on being mad at me for not being around, but when he saw what I was bringing to the family he just smiled and coached my way to the cabin.
“Careful now, Cluny. You don’t wanna be droppin’ any of your bounty. Makes way, here comes Cluny, an’ she’s got something for us all.”
I know he was probably makin’ fun of me, but I like to think in some small way he was proud of me for trying. At least, that’s the way I want to remember it.
Come night we had a big supper, it included cornbread and honey, just like it was some special occasion. Daddy praised my mamma for her cooking, but she didn’t say much, just set about cleaning up and getting my little sister ready for bed. Daddy sat by the cookin’ fire and hummed a quiet tune and soon it was time for myself to go to bed. Mamma tucked my sister and me into the bed we shared, telling us to go right to sleep.
My mamma never smiled that night. Usually she would tell us to dream of playing in the warm summer days, the sounds of birds singing in the trees, and blessings from the blanket of stars above us, keeping us safe for the night. But that night, there were no blessings, just the command to turn to the wall and go to sleep.
I could hear my parents talking real low and in hushed tones.
“Do you really has to go with the others? Why can’t you jus’ stay here with us?” My mother would plead.
“You know we has to go tonight, Dolly; the moon is right and Cawl been talking for days about how he an’ Master goin’ to town tonight for a meeting. It has to be tonight!” he reaffirmed.
“But Canada, Micah? I don’t even know where that is.”
“Shush now, Dolly, we can’t be lettin’ the girls hear!” His voice was adamant but restrained, “I told you it’s north, that’s all you need to know, it’s north.”
I laid there listening to their conversation, keeping my eyes to the wall. I couldn’t believe my daddy was talking about leaving us. Daddy wouldn’t do somethin’ like that. I looked up at the little piece of sky I could see through the window curtains and silently promised I would be a good girl and not run off to play when I should be workin’, if only my daddy would stay home. The cabin grew silent, and I could see by the shadows from the dying fire, my parents was just standing there holdin’ each other. The silence didn’t last for long, as soon there was a knock.
“Micah, it’s time,” a man’s quiet voice came through the closed door.
“Yeah, I’m comin’,” he replied.
I laid there, quiet like, pretending to be asleep, but I could hear him walking around the room as he gathered his pack of food and extra clothes. His footsteps grew close to our bed as he stopped and sat on the edge. I laid there with my eyes closed, thinking---if I was a good girl, sleeping like I was told---he would change his mind.
“My sweet, sweet, angels,” he whispered. “You take care of your mamma and I promise I will come back and take you to a new home where we all can be free.” He stroked my hair and leaned over to kiss my forehead, then he stood and walked out the door.
My mamma remained by the fireplace, her shadow still cast upon the opposite wall. She never said a word, just stood there. She must have been in a kind of shock, because I remember, as I was silently crying myself to sleep, her lone shadow was the last thing I seen.
I must’ve been crying as I finished my story because the man from Howard reached into his front breast pocket to remove, and offer me his clean pressed handkerchief.
“Thank you, I’ll wash it and get it back you,” was all I could say.
We both sat there in silence for a few moments before he said, with a new sincerity in his voice, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You didn’t child, I just hadn’t thought about what happened that day in … in, well, your lifetime for sure.” I smiled at him, hopin’ my words had lightened the situation, but it only made him more curious.
“I meant, upsetting you about being a slave,” he said in earnest.
His words caught me off guard. I opened my mouth to reply but nothin’ come out. I closed it and turned away, hopin’ not to have looked the fool, and thought about what he had said. How did I feel? How could I make him understand? I turned back to look him in the eye, and with a solemn tone said, “On the day that this all happened, the story I jus’ told you, I wasn’t a slave—I was a child.”
He looked at me, slightly taken aback, “Yes, ma’am, but you were a Negro child on a Maryland plantation, born before 1860.”
“Yes, yes, I was,” I agreed noddin’ my head. “I suppose technically I was, but your question to me was about my recollection of the start of the Civil War, was it not?”
The young man from Howard sat up straight and cleared his throat, “Uh … well, yes, ma’am, but I’m here to talk to you because you are one of the living survivors of the time when we Negroes were slaves.”
I placed my hand, gnarled with arthritis, on his, skin smooth with youth, “Now don’t get me wrong, young man, I am a free woman and very proud of it, but on that day, I was nothin’ more than a child, no different than Miss CeCe was. We both was beholden to the care and generosity of adults for our food and shelter. Neither of us was free to go where we wanted without permission, and if we misbehaved, there was consequences, usually at the end of a strap.
“Now, some might be sayin’ ain’t that what slavery is? And I say, yes, but on that day, it also was what bein’ a child was.”
He nodded his head, seeming to understand what I had said. “Did you ever see your father again?”
“No, never again.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Cluny, but I have to ask, do you know what ever happened to him?”
“I’d like to think he made it to Canada to live as a free man,” I lifted my glasses and wiped my eyes before dabbing my nose, “but it would’ve meant he didn’t mean it when he said he would come back for us.”
“What then do you think really happened?”
“I learned much later, he was right, there was a meeting of the town folk to discuss the start of the war and what the plantation owners should expect. Daddy wasn’t the only man to run away that night, it angered the overseer fiercely when a good portion of the hands didn’t show up the next morning for work. The women folk were questioned and threatened with whippings, or worse yet, being sold off, but none of them said anything. I think they were about to come after us children, but war did indeed come to our county and there was talk soldiers was comin’. I was young, I didn’t really understand ‘til much later.
There was word about a posse of overseers and bounty hunters out looking right away for the men folk who ran away. Others told me later, a couple of the men drowned in the river as they tried to cross over from Maryland to what is now West Virginia.”
“Do you think your father was one of these men?”
I shook my head from side to side with a measured gait, “I don’t rightly know, but I do know Momma cried every night of her life after Daddy left. I don’t want to think my daddy drowned, but it’s better to think he died trying to reach freedom than thinkin’ he did and deserted us in another country.”
The man from Howard put his hand on my shoulder, “One last question, I promise, what happened to your family, with the war and all, I mean?”
“Mister Cawl and Master both left to join the war leaving their women behind with us folk. Without the threat of penalty, many of the families picked up and left the plantation. If only my father had waited, he could’ve taken all of us with him.
Instead, a man come by; I didn’t know him, but Mamma did. She said he was her brother, my uncle, who had been sold off to another plantation when they was teens. He had come to get what was left of his family and move us all north”.
I sighed and with a tone of regret finished with, “Sometimes I wonder, if we had stayed behind, at the plantation I mean, Daddy would’ve come back for us, or, if he did indeed come back as promised, just to find we wasn’t there.” I dabbed my eyes again, this time knowing full well the sorrow I was expressin’.
The man from Howard swallowed hard, obviously moved by our discussion. He pulled the microphone closer to his self and said, before turning off his recording machine. “This concludes our interview with Miss Cluny Dafoe, born a slave in western Maryland in the 1850’s, now living in Memphis, Tennessee.”