Girl’s Story

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: J.R.McRae

Outside the window, wind is blowing in pine needles. I see the swish, swish sound like my broom. Yes, I’m deaf but you can see sounds. Now my broom brushes ‘cause that’s what I want. I want the floor swept for my little Paulie. His hands padder, padder on the wood plank floor and he pushes himself up back, sits there looking at me just like his poor dada. I’m not complaining. Pelletier’s a good man, he’s good to little Paulie. Loving, like me and Paul had, it’ll take time. But it‘ll happen. I want it.

Here is very far from all the ructions over the border. I don’t miss it, the fine house with its miserable occupants. I miss Paul, I grieve the tragedy of his dying in the grey, shot by his own twin, an officer in blue. I never understood that. Countrymen tearing each other apart, bloodying up their nation, their heritage.

Paul taught me. I still cry when I think on it. At first, I didn’t understand his passion to teach me. You taught children. I was grown. I was a slave girl. Why bother? I didn’t understand till I knew the depth of his love then I realized he saw me like no other ever had – his equal. He gave me hope and I learned! Paul’s lessons saved my life as much as we gave our Paulie his.

We snuck away to lessons after the house went quiet, late evening when his grandmother’s snores drifted up the stairs. She hated me, my skin, my disability, but, and I’m smiling here, she had no choice did she! All the finery fretting and frittering away through her wasteful fingers. Paul’s mother tutting quietly to her son but never game enough to tackle the old witch. I wish his Ma had lived. She deserved better than dying of shock – both sons gone.

Pelletier is tending his trap lines. He will be days yet. I have enough provisions and a gun. He taught me to use it. Pelletier was the bastard half-brother of Paul’s father. A good man his ‘legal’ brother wanted nothing of. Bastard. Well, that’s me. Unwanted daughter of a slave and a white mill manager, I’m half caste – mulatto – a ‘runaway’. A thing hunted by hounds like Pelletier’s old Josh, heavy head on paws by the cooking fire… I’m glad he left Josh here. Too old to follow the lines in all weather but still strong and a good guard.

I’m writing my story in quiet moments. Why? Who’ll ever see it? Maybe Paulie when he’s grown. He needs to respect his roots. Paul was an educated man, Paulie will get an education too, I will teach him. Dubonnet-Maguire, for Paul’s sake I kept that name by burying in the midst of Paulie’s – Paulie Dubonnet-Maguire Pelettier. He will be proud of his blood father. I will tell him, it is from Paul he got his learning and he will write his name proud!

What is my real name? Did my Ma not give me one? She died soon after having me, but I feel she must have had a name for me… must have picked a name for her girl. Her name – I don’t know. I never saw it writ. It must have been spoken around me… Talk words, sometimes they’re like annoying flies. All I get is a vague buzz of unknowing.  When you’re just the servant, the slave girl, no one bothers. Everyone just called me ‘Girl’. Even my Paul.

I was passed from one poor picker family to another till I was old enough to be sold. Then the Becker’s bought me. I guess they were no better nor any worse than most. Best part was being out of the fields. Then old Mr Becker started to eye me, right about the time I got my first bloods. I didn’t want none of him. I knew what happened to girls silly enough to let him get his hands on them. His son sent them to auction and it was a life in the fields. I wasn’t going back there. So I found a way to keep from old mister. At first I hid. It worked  till my growth spurt. Then hides were scarcer. My saviour was garlic. He hated garlic. That was a revelation! A new cook, European, put it in a dish and we all thought he’d die of apoplexy! Well I’d rub it on my arms, round my neck – even rubbed it on my lips. Snuck a clove from the kitchen every night. It were my ward against the demons in that old roué.

Finally, the old man talked his son into bringing in ‘new blood’ and I was let go to the Dubonnet’s. A mansion as had seen better times, an old harridan, Madame Ingenuie Dubonnet, her kind, beset on daughter, Jessica Maguire, and the grandson – my Paul – he liked me from the first.

I’ve been ‘Girl’ so long it is me. Pelletier asked me, when we married, if I wanted another name – he wrote in front of the priest – ‘What do you want to put down.’ But the Church register has me as I’ve always been known. Girl Pelletier. I like the sound of it. I practice writing it. Paul used to say I had a ‘fair’ hand. He was proud of what I learned. I was too. It was my freedom, my path to here. Just not with Paul like we planned…

Those many, many months, hiding by day at first and traveling by night. The donkey Paul had hidden so carefully in the woods back of the mansion, the donkey that was to be my bearer as I got heavier with Paulie, got taken one night before I even got out of Virginia. I’d scrambled in a hollow log too tired to find a place more suited. I’d tethered the animal nearby. I heard the men long before the crunch of their boots and the beat of their rifle butts through the under brush vibrated round me. I froze. Runaways got no mercy.  From their voices, I recognised the  recruiter band that took Paul. I waited long hours to be sure all was clear. Then I fled on foot, wrapped in his mother’s old great coat, with a bundle of essentials in Paul’s duffle. I travelled light, I had too far to go.

I haven’t put down much about the journey in my writing. Not all the dreary, painful detail of finding food, stealing eggs, fruit, anything edible; shitting in the bushes; trying to keep a modicum of clean; the search for shelter – abandoned huts, sheds, railway carriage. Till I got too big, even scrambling in a big, old tree.

Richmond, Virginia to beyond the Great Lakes is a weary long road. The having of writing, the fact I could read saved me. Time and again, I blessed Paul for his teaching of me.

Early on, Paul taught me to read maps. He said it was a wide, wild country and one day we were going to head north, to Canada, freedom for me and the chance to be wed, impossible in the States. And we would find Pelletier, high in eastern Canada on the fringe of the Hudson Bay Company’s grant.

Paul took two vital maps from his late grandfather’s collection, Phelps and Ensign’s Traveller’s Guide and map of the United States and Charles DeSilver’s Canada East – Lower Canada. The first, the old man acquired shortly before he died. The second, older, Paul annotated where he could. Grandfather Dubonnet’s gambling addiction took him far and wide, playing fast and loose with his fortune. These maps were the most precious thing he left. I hid them on me careful and close. They were like Bible.

The trek through the States took months, hiding from bands seeking runaways, marauders, the angry and dispossessed, seeking shelter if the weather went bad. There were close calls like the time a band of ragged men with dangerous eyes sought shelter in the same barn as me. I felt the pound of their horses hooves and buried myself in the hay in the loft. To my horror, two of the men found the piled up hay and made it their bed. One of them, a burly man, flung himself down across me. I muffled my cry just in time. I lay there all night, nigh crushed by his solid weight. But he never discovered me. He was snoring in moments. I dared not move hours after they left for fear they would return.

My skin, more Creole in shade, courtesy of my white father, stood by me. It made the getting of work easier. Further north there was some sympathy. Abolitionists had havens scattered across country. A few careful questions, scratched with a charcoal stub on skerricks of precious scavenged paper, found them for me.

Mid autumn heading to northern Pennsylvania, I came to a ravaged farm. The skeleton of a woman’s body lay on the porch. Had she fallen whilst fleeing marauders? Lain wounded and been finished by wolves? One arm was missing and part of a leg. Her wedding band still clung to the white bones of her ring finger. I stood stock still a staring at it. I wanted it but not like most who’d sell the gold for bread. It was the taking made me hesitate. I remember, growing up on the plantations, we kids found a dead man in the woods. Old Ma Tabba saw us looking at the body and the silver fob hanging just out of his pocket. One of the boys reached for it. She waved her stick at us and chanted, “You dun take the Devil’s due or Devil he gun come for you!” Don’t know if it were true or her putting the fear of God in us, but we left the fob chain be.

What were more important, some superstition or what’s real! I took the ring off her finger. She had no need of it now and it would stand me in good stead. Paul and I had made our vows to each other before he was took. But no priest had sanctioned it. This thin band would give me pass to shelter. An unwed mother was worse than a runaway. Even Abolitionists would shun her. I could feel my babe stronger now. I searched the farm for provisions – eggs, flour, mealy but edible. I corralled a nanny goat and had me some milk. A bed to sleep in, a full belly and I slept long.

I gave that place a long last look. There was too far to go yet. Too soon I’d have to shelter and wait for my little boy. The last things I took from that place – paper and pencil. Buried in back of an otherwise ransacked drawer was a small stock of a lady’s letter materials.

These writing tools were my lifeline through the states. With my supply of pencils and, later, charcoal sticks, always a ready supply from any warming cooking fire, the sheets and their messages got me work, shelter, supplies. They helped me to safe paths and shorter paths. Most folk were kind. They thought me a widow of the war, which in my heart I was.

An elderly tinker, Herr Adolphus Schmidt, picked me up in his wagon near the borderlands. I had reached the end of my strength. By now any writing paper was long gone.  Exhausted, I wrote a message in stones at road edge. I sat down and waited, hoping for a kind soul. It was on a lonely road, even though the main route through there. I must have fallen asleep where I sat. Next I knew, a rough, calloused hand was shaking me gently awake. He pointed at my stone words and smiled. I nodded and pointed north. He helped me into the wagon. I knew instinctively I could trust this grey grizzled man. I slept, bumping and rocking over the rough road, grateful for every moment.

I cooked. I taught him to read English, silent lessons with letters drawn in the dirt. He was pitifully grateful. I felt the clink and clang of  pots and pans behind us, their vibrations running up my arms as my fingers caressed the  rickety sides of the wagon. He carried me all the way into Canada. He wrote in clumsy words and scratched pictures how I was like his girl by an Algonquin squaw. His native wife died in childbirth and he cared for his girl till she was taken from him by the Raiders on the road through Kansas. He never went there again. Schmidt would have kept me. He made that plain – a firm warm grasp of my hands, the gentle grey-blue of his eyes. But my heart was set on Paul’s plan for his child and me.  I wanted a new beginning for us.

The last thing Schmidt did was take me to his wife’s tribe in the Ontario and Québec borderlands. The Algonquin welcomed me.  They knew of Pelletier.

Paulie was born at winter’s end by the cooking fire in a birch bark wigwam. All my pent up anger, grief and loss gushed out of me on the flood of my waters and little Paulie close after.

Whilst I gathered strength and nursed my boy, I helped the family who sheltered me prepare to up their winter camp. They were heading north with the tribe after furs and to hunt. I had a request for my Algonquin host – a tattoo. He seemed amused when I drew in the embers the letters of Pelletier’s name and a question mark. I pointed to my palm then to his tribal tattoos. He looked at me long with his night dark eyes. But he did what I wished.

The tattooing – stab after stab of red hot pain took all the evening. I clenched my other hand tight, nails digging into palm and gritted my teeth. I had to be strong. This last, most dangerous part of my journey, I could not run, could not hide as easy. I had my babe and much of the country was wilderness.

The Algonquin took me with them on a spare pony over plain and pass, wildflowers now peeping through the melting ice at forest edge – a pretty time. Finally, they came within a day’s journey of the white man’s village, nearest to where Pelletier was last been seen by their local kin. For Schmidt’s sake, I think, they gave me the pony. Not a small gift from these stern people.

Paulie in an Indian papoose, I rode the rough wagon track into the town. Shadow fingers were stealing the day by the time I enquired at the general store – writing my enquiry on some newsprint. Whilst the scrawny weathered storekeeper read my message and pondered, I read the headlines in the old paper. The war had ended. The Confederacy had lost. All that for nothing. I fought back tears at the uselessness of it all.

After what seemed an age, the storekeeper started to speak. Stopped, not realizing I had some lip reading, and started to write. Pelletier had called in briefly some weeks ago for supplies. He had headed north.

Schmidt had given me some coins and a few notes he could ill afford but had insisted. I used these now to get some food stuffs and a Bowie knife, nodded at the storekeeper and left. I leaned my map of Canada’s East on the flank of my pony and tried to figure where Pelletier might have headed. I decided to keep north and check again at the next town. With some weeks gone, maybe he would call for supplies and the next town was bigger. I knew Paul had written to his uncle, telling of his plans and of me not long before he was taken by recruiters. Had Pelletier ever received it?

The ride north was quiet. I had had years of seeking my own company in preference to that of others.  The deaf and to all purposes dumb, are not understood by most. There is no patience with us. That was till Paul and his mother. They had shown me something different. I had responded like a flower opening to the sun. It changed me. Now I was in strange territory and with my baby. I felt loneness in a new way. Care of another can open you vulnerable, exposed. Even so, if harm came, I would fight till I could not move for my son.

I could see the town in the distance when I became aware of someone following me. The vibrations rose through the ground, the wind, which was blowing from the south, carried scent – dirty, unwashed man-scent. I spurred my pony on. The vibrations became stronger. The scent more concentrated. I glanced over my shoulder. They met eyes flint hard not a length behind me. What those eyes said was nightmare.

I felt for the knife, gripped and drew it out. Clutched it to me. I would not reveal it yet, not unless he came up side of me, unless he acted. I wouldn’t risk him drawing a gun.

Long hammering moments he drew by. I saw his arm reach out for the reigns and struck, slashing open his arm – blood spurted furious and hot. He screamed with the unexpectedness and drew back cursing.  I glanced over, saw him reach his other hand for his gun. I wove the horse praying he could not aim as well with his left. Then, from the town, a cloud of dust advancing, he saw it too and veered off.

The group of hunter-traders drew level. We reigned. Too breathless with fright, it was all I could do to hold my hand up in greeting and query. Their leader saw, nodded, pointed. Pelletier was in town. They saw the blood on my knife, reigned their  animals back, drew their guns and they rode down the way I’d come.

I rode my pony hard. I would not risk Pelletier leaving before me, not again. I pulled into the town and headed for the general store. I tied the pony and headed up the wood steps just as a tall man with grey flecking his beard emerged. He begged pardon as he sought to pass. I held my palm up, right in his face. He stopped, amazed, looked hard at me, a slow smile curling the corner of his mouth. He nodded and said one word, “Pelletier!” I never saw a word form on lips so welcome before. I reached out unable to stop myself and touched those lips. I was home…

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6 thoughts on “Girl’s Story

  1. a paean to the power that being literate provides; an engrossing story with a series of dramatic events ; you capture the narrator’s voice well but I do wonder if she would have used a word like ‘modicum’

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