by Jessica Gruber
I was only ten when they found me.
The smell of manure was overwhelming. It was always there, a putrid stench that clung to my skin and left my shoulder stinging. The burn of the hot knife lingered, though the mark was smooth and shimmered like snake scales. It ached like all the marks they left on my back.
They never hesitated. They buried me, and everyone else under those marks. I was changed by them, by the people and the damage they left, somehow convinced that I was less than I really was. We were all convinced.
Only ten when they took me away.
I barely knew anything of the world outside the hell I lived in. But I refused to let them change me again. What little pride I had left wouldn’t let them. I watched for days, thinking of a way out. There was a spot. By the barn, where the cotton was stored, was a nook they left unattended for short periods of time. It was a risk, I slipped into nook that morning when no one was nearby and hid behind the tools in the corner. Anyone larger would’ve been caught. I was lucky no one noticed I was missing, too preoccupied were they with war and money. I waited there the entire day for night to fall. When it did, I waited for my moment, when they switched shifts like soldiers, when they were too drunk to care about shovels and their whips. Soon I would be free, free in choice, free in action, and free to run.
Only ten when they marked me as property.
In the middle of the night, the soldier finally stepped away to join his companions and drink to his heart’s content. I jumped.
And I stopped mid-stand.
Another soldier walked up, put a hand on the other and said something that came as a slur. “Let me take the watch, I can stand here. Don’ worry, it’s not a sober job.”
He did stand, drinking and thinking out loud.
I didn’t dare move. My heart pounded so loudly in my ears. Every time he turned, I thought that would be it. I couldn’t do anything if he saw me.
But after a time, he began to slip, leaning against the barn until he dropped his bottle and slumped against the side.
I dared move. Slowly, watching everywhere for a sign of trouble, a sign to run, I stepped out. I couldn’t see far, it was so dark. The drinkers and partiers had long quieted, somewhere near their large house. Two laughed. They were near what I wouldn’t call home, that tiny space I couldn’t call mine, too far to see or hear me across the fields.
I slipped from my spot.
My moment had come.
A hand landed on my shoulder.
“Where’re you going?”
My heart stopped.
He forced me around, confusion in his voice. His breath burned my eyes. “You’re not supposed to be out,” he muttered.
I tried to move, a last desperate try for freedom, but his grip was too tight. It hurt my arm and twisted my skin.
“No,” he said and pulled me back. He forced me to the ground. “Running away? You got that into your little slave head?”
I heard shuffling and the clank of tools. But I felt the whip.
It lashed across my shoulder once, twice, a third time and at first I didn’t realize there was pain. But as he struck again, and again, I fought not to cry out. With each blow my skin would soften until there wasn’t pain, only fire on my back. I’d endured it all before, I knew how it would feel, yet this was so much worse. Behind every blow was anger and the delight for pain. I reached for something, anything to hold to keep from finally braking. My fingers closed around the bottle.
He ceased, stepping forward and forcing me up. I’d crawled to the barn wall and cried when the tears of skin grated against the wood.
“You’ll go back,” he sneered, “and we’ll sell you in the morning. Or maybe I’ll tie you to a tree and see if something eats you first.”
The crack of the whip again, this time it struck my side.
I lifted my arm to protect my face, the bottle clutched in my grip. The fear that closes around your chest, that winds in your stomach, it found its way to my heart. He struck me again, not with the whip but with his fist. I realized that this could be it. As his fist hit my cheek, I realized that the last of me would be gone, lost to the burn of the marks they left behind.
But I remembered, before I was ten, the endless, unobstructed taste of freedom.
I lifted my arm and struck.
Glass shattered over his head. Both he and I toppled to the ground. I laid there for a moment panting. The faint stars above my head were almost spinning. Every limb hurt but I scrambled away, afraid that he would strike again. He didn’t follow me. The dark shape that was his body didn’t move. There wasn’t even the sound of his breath. I crawled close and dared move my hand nearer. I met glass, which scraped my fingers, and something smooth and sticky.
He still didn’t move.
I didn’t wait to see if he would. Fear that I had missed my chance, that others were coming as I sat there, forced me to move. I stood on shaking legs using the barn wall. Then I ran.
I stumbled over the dirt and grass. I reached into the dark. I found the fence and threw myself over it without looking back. I left the smell of manure behind me, the horrid cotton fields, the men who painted my back red with scars.
I waited for freedom to rip the burden of nothingness from my shoulder, for that glorious sense of choosing for myself. But I knew even if I did feel freedom, it wouldn’t change the knot twisting in my stomach. All I could think of was that soldier, the man who would never get up.
They never hesitated to hurt me. They buried me under those marks. I ran. I was free. They would never be able to change me again, and yet somehow they had. I knew I was less than I what I thought should have been.
And I wondered if I would have been different had they never found me when I was ten.
I ran and my heart ached like all the marks upon my back.