Libertie Page 3

“Lucien’s good-looking as well.” Madame Elizabeth glanced sideways at Mama. “Perhaps one day, he and Libertie will make us proud and marry.”

Mama was still watching Mr. Ben, but she smiled. “And move my Libertie all the way to Philadelphia, away from me? I couldn’t bear that,” she said. But she was pleased, I could see, that Madame Elizabeth, even in jest, considered me worthy of her son.

“What did Mama do with the purple ribbons?” I asked before I could stop. I cursed myself. Surely, now they would send me to bed. But Madame Elizabeth pulled me onto her lap.

“She wore them every day, because she knew they looked so fine. She was wearing them the day she met your good and kind father. She only let me borrow them once, when I asked her because I was going to a lecture at the lyceum. And, wouldn’t you know, it was there where I met my own good man, Monsieur Pierre. He was fresh from Haiti, and I do believe meeting him is because of those lucky purple ribbons. Maybe she’ll let you wear them one day, too, and you will tell us of finding your love with them.”

“Tall tales,” Mama said.

The rope on the cot whinnied as Mr. Ben turned over in his sleep. He began to cry. He was saying something, a word gargled by the bend of his neck. Mama gently lifted his head, and he sighed. Then he shouted, “Daisy.”

“He certainly is giving us work,” Madame Elizabeth said.

“We grow too bold. You should not have taken him.”

“He insisted. In his state, it’s safer to keep him moving. Once his sister comes, she can take him on to Troy or Syracuse. Or Canada.”

“He won’t be safe till he’s out of this country. Even then, he will probably still be in danger,” Mama said.

“Daisy,” Mr. Ben cried again.

“His sister said that was his girl,” Madame Elizabeth said. “He took up with her, and then she ran. They got word last spring she died. That’s what finally made him despair enough to leave, his sister said. She’d been trying to get him to work up the courage for forever. Their mother gone, brother gone, and then the girl he’d started to love, for just a little bit of comfort, gone, too. That’s why he’s here.”

“He’s running away, not running towards. They’re the most dangerous kind,” Mama said. “They have nothing to lose, and so they grow reckless.”

“He won’t harm us, though.”

“Let us hope,” Mama said. She did not sound convinced.

MY MOTHER NAMED me Libertie for a dead man’s dream, the dream of my father—the only other dead man I knew before Mama resurrected Mr. Ben.

My father died when I was still in Mama’s womb. He was a traveling preacher, and on one of his trips west, he fell ill. By the time he made it back to her, it was too late. Even Mama, who I believed could heal everyone, could not heal him. In his final moments, as he lay sweating his life away in her arms, he told her to name me Libertie, in honor of the bright, shining future he was sure was coming.

Father was one of those who’d stolen themselves away and come up north. Did he come in one of Madame Elizabeth’s coffins? I do not know. Mama did not like to talk about him. His name was Robert. I know it only from tracing it on his gravestone with my finger. He is buried in my mother’s family’s plot—he, of course, did not have his people up here. His gravestone reads ROBERT SAMPSON, and then, underneath it, instead of his time on this Earth, only one word: FREEDOM.

Although Mama did not like to talk about my father, she did like me to take care of his grave. Every other Sunday, after church, we stopped in the burial place and washed down his stone and pulled up the weeds. One of the first presents she made me, when I was four or five, was a small pair of scissors to wear at my waist, so that I could trim the grass that grew over him. “It’s his home now,” was how she’d explained it to me. “We have to make it comfortable for him.”

While Father was the one dead man I knew, I knew of a dead little girl, too: my mama’s sister. She was also buried in the family plot, but her stone had no name, and Mama wouldn’t tell it to me. Mama did not like to speak of her, either. She was not a name, not a memory—just a white stone that only Mama was allowed to tend and a glass jar on the parlor’s mantelpiece, where Mama kept three braids clipped from her sister’s head right after she passed. The dead girl’s braids sat gathering dust in the bottom of the jar, curled in on one another like the newborn milk snakes we’d sometimes find asleep in the barn. I only learned how the little girl passed from Lenore, who told me one day, plain, while Mama was on a house call and had left me to help wash the sheets.

As she beat the linen clean, Lenore said, “Pneumonia.” The dry cough racking the small, sweaty body, the muffled air: it was a painful way for a child to go. “Back then, there was no colored doctor, man or woman, in the county. If you wanted to go to see a doctor, you had to find a white person willing to accompany you—white doctors did not treat colored people if we came alone. Your grandfather was light enough. He could get by. But the little girl who passed, she couldn’t. She was too dark. They would have known her to be colored. They would not have taken her for white, as they would have if it was your grandfather or your mama who fell ill.”

“Your grandfather had a white friend,” she continued. “A Mr. Hobson, who he sometimes chewed tobacco with. So he ran to him to see if he would accompany his daughter to the hospital. But when he reached Mr. Hobson, the man was playing cards and did not want to get up from the table—not yet. Mr. Hobson waited a hand, and then another, just to make sure he was losing, and by the time he had gotten up and gotten back to the house, your mother’s sister was gone.”

Lenore ended the story matter-of-factly. “Your mama became a doctor because she watched her sister die.”

I think it is also why, even though Mama could have gotten by, she always made it clear she was a colored woman. They let her into the medical school alongside two white women before they realized their mistake, though she was quick to point out she’d never deceived anyone, never claimed she wasn’t a Negro, always signed her real name and address. And then, of course, she married my father, who must have been dark, because I could never get by the way she could. But Mama saw that as a mark of honor, a point of pride for her Libertie. Almost as if she’d planned it.

I know that they met at a lecture. Maybe one where Madame Elizabeth met her Haitian? I never had the courage to ask. Mama only told me that the lecture was about the country being founded for us in Africa. It was a lecture about whether or not American Negroes should go. Should free men leave? Mama did not want to—I know that. And I know that my father always did. So I am named for his longing. As a girl, I did not realize what a great burden this was to bear. I was only grateful.

Where did Father go? Where was he now, since he was not here on Earth with me and Mama? Every other Sunday, I lay on my father’s grave and imagined that new place he’d journeyed to in death: Freedom. In the muggy summertime, in the hot July sun, I imagined Freedom was a cool, dark cave with water dripping down the walls—like the one where Jesus slept for three days. And in November, when the wind bit the tips of my fingers and turned them red, I imagined Freedom was a wide, grassy field on a warm and cloudy day.

What did Father do, now that he was dead? He went to more lectures. Since it was the only thing I knew about him, about how they met, I imagined that was Freedom to him. In Freedom, he sat in the cool cave or in the wide field in a pew like we had at church, but comfortable, and he closed his eyes and listened to learned men and women make the world anew with words. And at his side were two seats: one for Mama at his left and one for me at his right. I imagined that when I died and made it to Freedom, whenever that would be, I would have to spend eternity very politely pretending to like these lectures as much as Mama and Father did. It would be hard to do that forever, but Mama would be happy, at least, and I would have my father’s hand in mine, while I sat, slightly bored but loved, in Freedom.

WE ALL SLEPT in the examination room that night—me curled on Mama’s lap, and Madame Elizabeth and Lucien collapsed on each other, and Mr. Ben still in his cot.

I woke up first, a little before dawn. It was strange to be awake without Mama, but it gave me time to very carefully crawl down off her lap and creep across the floor and sit, hugging my knees, right by Mr. Ben’s pillow, so I could get a better look at him. Mr. Ben was the first person I’d ever met who had been brought back from death, and I watched him avidly for signs of what Freedom had been like.

I saw where his lips were damp with spittle, and I smelled, on his breath, the dried flowers that my mother had made him eat. And then I had the shock of watching him open his eyes, very slowly, to stare back at me.

“I been awake for hours,” he said.

I nodded.

“You her girl?”

“She’s my mama.”

Prev page Next page