top of page

Daily Resurrection, Creative Non-fiction by Beth Yoakum


Her eyes scanned the vast expanse of land. A single tree whose branches resembled roots, a tree she remembers as gouye gui, came into view. Fine branches like fingers reached enthusiastically toward the sky. The intense rays of the sun, brighter than the impersonal light found in Boston, always made her want to shade her eyes. Relentless. Its penetrating light never ceased chasing her in her dreams.


Only in her dreams was the girl’s bare feet firmly planted on the land beneath her. Only in her dreams was she reprimanded for teasing her sister. Only in her dreams did she laugh at the antics of her nijaay chasing the goats around.  


Her name trickled out of her mother’s mouth and echoed inside her mind, but only in her dreams.


On the journey over, she was taught to slip her thoughts into secret places in her memory and to swallow wayward words. Stay very still and imagine you are a tree or a rock. Blend in. Do not be skittish like the gazelle or hungry like the leopard. With the constant heaviness in her chest, it wasn’t hard to remain stationary. Pursed lips forced her to breathe slowly in and out of her nose, a trick she learned to lessen the cough that came with her sickness.


It was a surprise when she was chosen. During the first days at the market, she watched as one by one, her fellow travelers were sold. At night she returned to her cage, cowering, alone and afraid. Gripping a rough scrap of cloth tightly around her tiny frame. Every dawn returning her to the square to be scrutinized yet again. When the Missus locked eyes on her, for a moment she forgot to breathe slowly and deliberately and succumbed to a coughing fit. Despite her small size and ashen lips, she went home with the Missus and Nate that day.


Confused whispers behind callused hands followed her when she entered the home. The others called her pickaninny even after the Missus and Mister declared Phillis as her name. It was the name of the vessel that stole her away from home. As she grew older and more familiar, both Mary and Nate shortened her name to Phil. She wanted so badly to scream that is not my name! But observing how the others reacted with silence, she followed their lead and swallowed her screams.


Knowing that her owners treated her better than others in the house did not lessen the sting. It was true that the others were bridled with the responsibility of rising early and retiring late to prepare food, fetch water and tend fires. Her job required less physical effort. But while the others worked behind closed doors, she was required to perform for visitors. The Wheatley’s treated her like a pet, ushering her out to recite memorized passages or later, her own poetry. For these performances, they bought her dresses of the current fashion and forced her to use hot butter knives to tame her hair. Her participation ended when Mister Wheatley tapped her shoulder, indicating they were done with her.


After one such performance, a visitor remarked “Well I do say, you picked a good one here. Smart. Surely, she has white blood in her.” Neither Mister nor Missus Wheatley contradicted their guest.

           

In her studies, Phillis learned of the management of others in the south, where the intense heat rarely relented and fields of crops were planted, tended, and harvested season after season. An unyielding cycle. They were encouraged to have children, only to have those children snatched away and sent to the fields, or worse, sold. Attempts to escape instigated a hunting party, where grown men set off on horses with rifles picking through the land for their errant possessions.


             This knowledge and memories of home hardened her heart.


            One night she awoke from her dream and turned toward the window. Outside, the clear sky offered an unobstructed view of the chalky white moon. But she wasn’t fooled, she knew from her studies that the moon lacked any real power of its own to light the night sky. It held onto the sun’s rays and threw it back at the earth. Even the face scribbled on the moon looked impotent and powerless.


            Now she rose and wrapped herself in a thick blanket and stepped quietly to her desk. When Nate caught her writing a year ago, he immediately shared it with the rest of the household. What he didn’t know was the words he discovered were weakened versions of the condition of her heart. Like the colorful seku bi of her childhood, a bird known for stealing the other bird’s song, her first written words mimicked the voices of her owners. But since then, the attention from those words reinforced her courage. Her writing became bolder. In the long, lonely hours alone, she ruminated over the fate of those captured. Tonight, fueled by her dream of home, she would allow the echoes of her heart to speak.


Once the oil lamp was lit, she began a letter addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth. He was a powerful man sympathetic to slaves. Perhaps he would ignore her letter or dismiss her authorship as others had. Would her honesty offend him?


Thinking back to her capture, her throat constricted at how her father must have reacted when he woke to only her sister and mother the morning after her kidnapping. Her hand moved swiftly across the page, stopping only for ink.


Once the letter was finished, she set her pen down and turned off the lantern, then crawled back into bed. Deep sleep captured her, sweeping dreams of home away.

         

Before she opened her eyes the next morning, she lay very still in bed. The Mister called sleep an unnecessary evil, preferring the utility that only wakefulness offered. For her, sleep provided an escape from the charade of being a possession. Shedding sleep in the morning left her body feeling raw and exposed.


Reluctantly, she opened her eyes. The window framed the weak sun fighting for space among a cloudy New England sky. The seasons were changing and soon snow would float from those clouds. Then the seasons would change again, and the sun would reemerge. Again, and again the cycle would repeat.


But in her dreams, the sun in her home never faded. It chased her, relentless and uncompromising. The gouye gui tickled the sky. And her name spilled from her mother’s mouth like a daily resurrection.




 

Beth Yoakum is an avid reader known to devour nearly anything set in front of her. All that reading created an overactive imagination, and for decades she conjured up characters and stories that lived only in her mind. Recently she began writing her stories down. She enjoys the short story format but is challenging her attention span by working on a novel. Beth lives in Michigan with her husband, her four daughters and a large collection of unread books.

Kommentarer


bottom of page