The shells of drowned trees stood crooked and black in the muck, a film on the water’s surface thick and undisturbed. No living things came there, even the gnats and the mosquitoes knew better. This land was for the dead, for the damned who poured their lives into the soil to reap life from it. For those who have washed the land away with their tears, forming the swamp that will not forget.
It began when Harold purchased the two women from upriver, one a beauty with ebony skin, the other a stout woman who knew her way around a kitchen. When he’d seen Ellie on the block, he outbid every other hungry-eyed man. When he won her, she begged him to purchase her mother, as well. He acquiesced, as her mother was far less expensive, and the house was in need of a cook. Harold moved them into the manor instead of into the tin roofed barns that served as the slave quarters. He gave them a room to share on the first floor.
Harold’s wife, Cora, hated Ellie immediately. She knew well that look in her husband’s eyes. The two women soon learned that it was Cora who ran things around the plantation, not her husband. Harold was too soft, Cora claimed, to get much of anything accomplished. Several times she sent Ellie to work the fields when she found some fault in the her housework, but Harold brought her back, time and again.
It was a Sunday when he knocked on Ellie’s door, a package in his hands. She let him in, he shut the door behind them. She opened the package and beneath the tissue paper found the loveliest yellow taffeta dress.
“Try it on,” Harold urged.
Dress folded over her arm, Ellie took a few light steps toward the washroom.
“No, here, where I can see you,” Harold said.
She knew better than to disobey. She knew what happened to women who disobeyed their masters. She slipped out of her patched skirt a few thundering heartbeats before Cora barged in.
“Ellie, I—” Her thins lips pulled tight, a slash across her face. She backed away, Harold followed her. Ellie slumped onto the floor and wept, nearly naked, the dress clutched to her chest. An hour later, Cora herself brought Ellie a cup of tea and some sweets for comfort.
“I’ll never let him in again, ma’am, I swear it.” Ellie said.
Cora patted her shoulder, “I know,” she whispered, and passed the girl a cookie. Ellie took a bite, then another. Cora dropped a lump of sugar into the tea and waited until Ellie drank the last drop. Then she smiled and excused herself, taking the tea service with her.
Ellie’s body was cold by the time her mother found her sprawled out on the floor of their room.
She went to see old white-haired Jonathon out in the fields, and voices joined, they called her back. Ellie whispered accusations before she thinned and became night itself, drawn like a shroud over the plantation.
Her presence incited the slaves to action, giving them both courage and blood lust. They marched on the neat white manor like men possessed, even the loosed dogs could not stop or even stall them.
While Cora and Harold lay dead in a heap, expensive rug soaking in blood, the slaves crept upstairs and took the babes, passed from hand to hand as carelessly as rag dolls to be added to the pile. None left the plantation that night or any other, save the three children who had done no wrong, spirited off to long slumber and a lovely waking. The rest remained to wash the world with their tears, the fate of oppressed and oppressors ever interlocked with no escape from the dismal dead lands, and somewhere beneath it all, a rotted yellow taffeta dress.
Dawn Allison has always been haunted by the past.