Come closer. Move in. Take a closer look. Don’t worry they can’t see us or hear our footsteps. We are merely watching, invisible, like a fly on the mirror over the mantle or a piece of china sitting on the sideboard in the drawing room. Come with us now into the home of the Boudreaux family. Feel the warm Georgia air through the open French windows, your collar beginning to sweat. You’re wondering why we are here. Don’t worry it will soon become clear. This is Ravenwood. The largest cotton plantation west of Atlanta and the year is 1837. Home to the Boudreaux family for three generations, we have come to look in on the youngest Boudreaux at this time, little Miss Ashleigh.
There she is, her golden ringlets bouncing as she bounds down the long staircase. She can smell the cookies Annie has made and she’s making a beeline for the kitchen eager to get there before her older sister Marguerite. But her sister is already hanging from Annie’s apron strings as she takes the biscuits from the oven. Before the tray is even rested on the stove top Marguerite grabs the biggest one, throwing it between her hands, the heat burning her as she scores a victorious look to her newly arrived sister.
Ashleigh’s face is a disgruntled snarl and even though Annie burns her own hands she lifts one to give to the smaller child and draw a line under her defeat. Ashleigh devours the cookie, crumbs falling to the kitchen floor and grabs another before knocking the tray into the air, falling into a jumbled mess as Marguerite screams. What you’re seeing is typical sibling rivalry but it is important to see Ashleigh for the eight-year-old child she is, for children are not equipped some would say, to understand the proper order of things, not yet. They have much to learn. They are impetuous, acting on instinct and finding their way between the folds of good and bad behaviour.
This is where we must jump forward, only by a few nights to the events that would shape the child into the young woman she would become. See, there she is, lying in slumber, her hair a halo of fallen curls. She looks restful doesn’t she? But inside, her mind is a torment of voices as they try to gain control. The demons have spent years delicately burrowing into the girl, every night, twisting her mind a little further. Some nights she wakes screaming for her mother and they giggle to themselves already planning their mischief for the next opportunity.
Close your eyes for a moment and you can hear them whispering to her. Their voices, first a low rustle and then building, until hundreds of them overlap, crawling over each other to be heard. They are strong and they will her mind, manually turning the tiny cogs to their deeds. This night they will truly test the girl and themselves. Arise they command and so her little body sits upright, her face still lost in the façade of sleep. At first they are satisfied to just move her but when that proves an easy task, they goad her out of her bed and into walking, one little bare foot in front of the other, until her tiny hand meets the glass doorknob. You are thinking we should wake her but we are merely watching these moments like sketches in an artist’s book already drawn. We are visitors and the future is already set. We have no actions here but to witness what befell the girl. Across the landing to the stairs, she moves silently without a creak of wood to give her away and like a spectre in the darkness, we follow her little white nightgown.
They are taking her outside. The night air is cool, but they cast their invisible arms around her, keeping her in the warmth of their embrace. As her feet touch the grass, they lay themselves beneath her lest the blades disturb her wander and they draw her now to the woods where they will end it. Inside a clearing not far from the slaves quarters, they halt her, dropping her to her knees. They seek her voice now tunnelling through her body to find it, enclosed in the back of her throat. Make her speak they chant.
“Let me in” she whimpers, her voice weak as her hands find the soil beneath her and begin to move it slowly. The demons are marvelling at their power, one voice complimenting the other.
“Let me in.” This time a little louder as she scratches at the earth, making furrows with her fingers dragging it to her knees. The girl is lost inside and if the demons have their way they will take her down into the soil with them. A loud scream sounds from deep within her. The girl has fight after all for even in their torment she makes a mutinous revolt of her own. They must silence her and so they strike her head to the ground rubbing it in the small pit she has dug, the earth finding its way up her nose and into her open mouth. She is lost, yet she is screaming, her eyes sealed to the nightmare.
Can you hear the whipping of branches as he runs through the low bushes and gorse? Running from the slave quarters to the cries of a child in the darkness. Keep watching, there to the left. Here he comes. Joshua. He sees her, the Master’s child. Little Miss Ashleigh screaming, her nightgown thick with muck, her face smeared by her own hand it seems. He calls her name and for a moment he thinks he sees her head turn before it strikes again and if we move back we can see his feet sliding through the leaves as he lands beside her, grabbing her shoulders.
“No, Miss Ashleigh”, he says, holding her back.
Her body is rigid in his grip and her dirty hands have found his face, her head turning to him. Inside the demons scream and her eyes flash open, milky swirls before they shut tight again. The demons will fight him for her. Her hands become claws, dragging through his skin, drawing blood. His long arms clutch around her body trapping her flailing ones beneath his, his face now out of reach as she takes them both to the ground, the demons bucking and jolting her. In the distance through the trees, gather more witnesses but unlike us, they are flesh. They are like Joshua and they are frightened.
“Get the master, quick” he yells to them.
“He’ll be mad” one says.
“Get him” shouts Joshua.
For a moment she stops fighting and her limbs soften as he whispers softly into her ear.
“You’re safe Miss Ashleigh. You’re safe”.
Her head twitches, her ear turning to his lips, lost among the mess of her hair. Her body convulses as she hears his voice. She hears it, as do they and he is invading her mind with soothing words at odds with their hoarse cries.
“Where is little Miss Ashleigh?” he whispers. The one who sits on the top step of the porch, tapping her feet, eating rose water jellies, or clutching blossoms picked from the meadow, wildflowers in their hair. “Are you still in there?”
Her little body is shivering as the demons slowly lessen their embrace allowing the cool night air to prickle the hairs on her arms. Joshua’s voice rises in the darkness singing softly to her as he rocks her gently in his arms. He can’t think of one song she and he might share and so instead chooses a slave song, the deep timbre of his voice vibrating in her bones as he sings it into her ear.
The demons are listening for they fall quiet and suddenly they release her to him. Oh there is more merriment to be had this night, they think. Inside Miss Ashleigh’s mind they recede to the shadows, poking her with long fingers as they go causing her to shudder again. They howl with laughter and the sound of it starts to fade slowly as the girl begins to return, a song of redemption bringing her back to the surface. At last her rigid muscles relent and she sags into his embrace, curling her body into him. On he sings and she opens her eyes, looking at the man holding her as if he were Christ himself, a deity who made the monsters go away. His eyes are kind and she bursts into tears. He stops singing, wiping muddy strands of hair from her little face. She is tiny in his arms. She can smell the wood smoke from his worn shirt and through her tears comes the slow dawn of her surroundings. She is outside.
“The Master’s coming”. A man runs back into the trees away from them and she can hear her father’s voice bellowing across the lawn. He is worried and angry. He is always angry.
Her father is coming. Here. To her now. She is weeping fresh tears as she pushes her hands away from Joshua to look at him properly. She sees not the face of her saviour but that of a slave.
She feels his hands on her holding her still, his eyes questioning hers. The sound of the wind in the leaves is suddenly very loud and he is asking her if she is okay but she can’t hear him. All she hears is her Daddy’s voice and the whipping of the branches. Her cheeks are hot and red and her stomach is squirming.
Her eyes blur before settling on the image of Alfred Boudreaux in his nightgown, the tassel on his nightcap blowing in the wind. His face drops when he sees the two of them and that’s when the demons begin to celebrate and Miss Ashleigh begins to scream anew. She kicks her legs, her bare feet flying back and forth, her arms struggling in his. She’s afraid. Afraid her Daddy will see that she could be comforted by this man. And oh to explain how she came to be there with him. For he simply will not understand it.
“Help me” she screams.
Joshua sets her on the ground quickly and she runs from him, hugging her Daddy’s hip as he picks her up. He registers the state of his child, running his hand over her golden hair, ridding it of twig and leaf, glaring at the man before him.
Joshua speaks, his voice shaking as the situation now present dawns.
“Master, she was o’come with a madness Sir.”
Miss Ashleigh buries herself from his words but she has decided and when she speaks her voice is meek but definite.
“He took me here Daddy. He took me from my bed”.
Joshua protests but his words fall into the wind. Mr. Boudreaux sees the scrapes on his face, the trails of blood from her tiny fingernails. And how the demons laugh. They will happily find another to torment. This child has chosen a path now that will give them so much more amusement than if they had simply taken her life. Little Miss Ashleigh clutches her arms around her father’s neck as they walk away, her decision nesting within her, its roots taking hold. Her toes are tingling as her father holds her tightly, Joshua staring at her as he is set upon by the foreman with his noose – no pleading now – just a steely gaze in her direction, a recognition between them of the lie and he can almost see the demons circle her like ribbons as they celebrate his fate.
The Boudreaux’s don’t stay for the hanging and nor shall we. Instead we will watch as she is carried back to her bed, simpering at her father’s kind touch, and as sound slumber reaches for her in the warmth of her covers, she is again soothed by the slave song playing in her mind.
©Clare B. Daly 2016