A Long Way from Home
Click to order via Amazon
Format: Hardcover, 368pp
Pub. Date: August 1999
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
(Briscoe's A Long Way from Home was picked as AALBC.com's The Coffee Will Make You Black reading group selection for February 2000)
Clara sat up on the edge of her pallet and rubbed her eyes with her fists. She could tell it was awfully late by the way the morning shadows fanned across the attic floor. Mama had been up long before the shadows, and by now she would be running around the mansion lighting fires, emptying chamber pots, and fetching fresh water from the well for Mass Jimmy and Miss Dolley and all the folks who always seemed to be visiting them. And if Mama knew her daughter's fanny was still lolling on a pallet way past dayclean, she would go into another one of her yelling fits. Clara just hated it when Mama got to fussing.
Still, it was awful hard to get moving. She had started having chores to do at dayclean when she turned ten almost a year ago, but she wasn't yet used to this getting up before the sun did. Sometimes she thought she'd never get used to it. She wiggled her bare toes and stretched her lips with a yawn until she thought her mouth would burst at the corners. She would just take a quick peek out the window before getting dressed, she thought. She stood and made her way across the plank floor, then pushed the shutters open and leaned out.
To the north, rows of pine trees lined a path leading to the small temple over the ice house. On the other end, a deer browsed near a weeping willow, and a few sheep grazed nearby as Ralph, a boy about Clara's age, appeared from around the side of the mansion. He was leading one of the horses to the gate, probably for a guest who wanted to take an early morning ride on the grounds of the estate. Suddenly, the deer raised its head and leaped away.
Clara took a deep breath and filled her lungs with the scent of roses and jasmine drifting up from the gardens. She loved this spot at the very top of the mansion, for she could see clear across the lawn and over the treetops to the peaks of the Blue Ridge mountains. The plantation stretched out before her was small compared to the grand estates along the James River, but it was still considered by many to be the finest in the Piedmont area of Virginia. After all, this was Montpelier, the home of James Madison, former president of the United States, and his wife Dolley. And for the lucky few like the Madisons, it was a time of pillared mansions, velvet ball gowns, and gilded carriages, of Southern ladies entertaining in Persian-carpeted drawing rooms and gentlemen galloping freely across their vast estates.
But seeds of change were sprouting throughout the Virginia countryside, and Clara often overheard white grownups talking about the glories of the old days. Good land was harder to come by now, fields were overcultivated, and there were simply too many slaves. Whites bitterly recalled the days, only a few years earlier, when a slave preacher named Nat Turner held the citizens of Virginia in terror as he led a band of angry men through the countryside killing every white in sight. By the time they caught Nat Turner and hanged him that November of 1831, more than fifty whites lay dead. It was one of the bloodiest insurrections in American history, and it had happened right there on Virginia's soil.
Colored folks talked about that time, too, but usually with more awe than anger. For them, these had been long days of retrenching freedoms, of women and men toiling from dayclean to daylean, and of dreams dying in the dark.
The horse neighed, and Clara snapped out of her reverie and looked down below. One of Miss Dolley's nieces walked down the gravel path in front of the mansion and mounted the horse as Ralph and now Ben and Abraham steadied the animal and handed the reins to her.
Clara closed the shutters, then ran back to her pallet and squeezed her feet into the hard leather and cardboard shoes lying on the floor. She looked down and tried hard to wiggle her toes. No such luck. They were her first pair of shoes, and Mama insisted she wear them, as all the other house slaves did. But the things were so dratted stiff, it felt like she was wearing rugs on her feet. How did Mama expect her to be able to run and skip and jump? Clara supposed she had the answer to that. If Mama had her way, her daughter's carefree days were over. Clara belonged in the big house now, Mama said, doing her chores. And for that, she had to look respectable; she had to wear shoes.
She sighed and pulled her dress over her head. She was extra gentle with the dress as she buttoned it at the collar. Mama had made it for her eleventh birthday, with new muslin fabric from Miss Dolley. Even though the special day was two months away, Mama let her wear it now, since most of her other dresses were getting too small. Mama said she was growing faster than a weed in a vegetable garden.
She smoothed the dress around her legs and looked down at the shoes once again. She wrinkled her caramel-colored nose with disgust, kicked the shoes off, and placed them side by side next to the pallet. There, she thought, stretching her toes on the plank floor. That felt more like it. Mama would get mad if she caught her walking around barefoot, so she would have to stay out of Mama's sight. Probably a good idea, anyhow, since Mama was sure to make her do her chores if she caught her, and she had other fun things in mind.
Clara ran down the back stairs to the second floor of the mansion, then stopped and peeked around the corner. Even though she was supposed to use the back stairs all the way down, she was less likely to run into Mama if she used the main stairs.
Copyright ' 1999 by Connie Brisco. All rights reserved.