Six slaves sat in a triangle, three women, three men, the men half nestled in the sticky heat of thighs, straining their heads away from the pain of the tightly woven ropes. The six chatted softly among themselves, about the Ohio weather, about how they didn’t mind it because they all felt they were better suited to this climate. They were guarded in their speech, as if the long stretch between them and the resort property were just a Juba dance away.
The men nibbled and sucked at yellow flowers, spitting the seeds into the water tins beside them, offerings they would make to the women when they were done. The women parted the hair with their fingertips, meticulously straightened lines crisscrossed like checkerboards. They warmed a waxy substance in their hands and spread it onto the hair. Two of the men had silky coils that stretched long. The other one had hair so short the plaits stuck out like quills.
They watched as the stranger approached. She balanced a basket on her head, the way they had in the old country. They could tell from the way the woman’s skirt moved the fabric was a good one. But what was most striking about her was the bush of red hair that sprayed out from beneath the basket like a mane. None of them had ever seen hair so red on a colored woman.
Reenie, the oldest of the group, spoke first. “You staying at Tawawa?”
“Yeah.” The red-headed woman took a careful survey of the group. Two of the women looked to be about her age. The oldest of them, the one questioning her, had yellowed, rheumy eyes that still maintained a sharpness. The men—twins and a third one with a flickering cheek—looked well fed and healthy. “Mawu.”
“What?” said the old woman.
“That be my name. Mawu.”
“I ain’t never heard a name like that,” Lizzie said. “How do you spell it?” Lizzie was proud of the fact that she could spell.
Mawu did not answer. She pulled at her left earring.
The slaves examined the red-headed woman as if she had just dropped from another world.
They were unashamed in their curiosity, boldly eyeing the freckled hands, the unruly hair, and the two small earrings that bent the sunlight.
The stranger let them look, accustomed to such invasions.
Sweet spoke up. “Us can plait your hair.”
Lizzie instantly wished she had thought first to ask. She wanted this creature with the strange name to be trapped in the curve of her own strong thighs.
Yet Mawu only regarded Sweet and her swollen stomach with a pitying look. She lifted a hand to her crotch, as if to warn off the misfortune that had resulted in Sweet’s circumstance.
“No,” said Mawu. “Tip wouldn’t like it.” She gathered the skirt and waved it about, boasting that the fabric was the result of keeping this “Tip” happy. But the three slave women responded with a tacit acknowledgment that this Tip was no different from theirs.
“Sit with us for a spell,” one of the twins offered, pointing to the thickest patch of grass.
Lizzie was certain Mawu would decline the invitation, so she was surprised when the woman set down her basket, pulled up her skirt, and gathered her legs beneath her.
“They call me Philip,” said the man between Lizzie’s legs. He liked the looks of this one. He also liked the way she talked— a melodic accent that pulled at the corners of her mouth. He hadn’t taken a woman in months, and hadn’t had a woman of his own in years. But something about her—maybe it was the hair— warned Philip that his interest shouldn’t be of the permanent kind. “And this here is Henry and this is George. They brothers. I suppose these here women can introduce theyselves, but I can save them the trouble. This here is Reenie, they call this one Sweet, and the one here behind me is Lizzie. Me and Lizzie from the same plantation down in Tennessee.”
Mawu added, “I come from Louisiana,” although no one had asked.
Reenie nodded briefly and the other two women took that as a sign to go back to their work. The men tilted their heads again and popped the flowers into their mouths. Lizzie’s hands were working on Philip, but her eyes were working on the lioness. She watched as Mawu looked off into nowhere, and so was the first to see Mawu’s lips pucker and begin to hum something light. It sounded like it had some spirit in it, but it was no tune Lizzie had ever heard.
Mawu adjusted her melody, stringing together short rhythmic phrases here and there, the way the conjuring man had taught her. The mustard seeds plunked into the tin cups like drumbeats beneath her voice. When the seeds were all spent, she ended with a flourish. An appreciative silence followed.
“How long y’all gone be up here this summer?” Reenie asked, resuming their lazy conversation.
“Drayle says he wants to stay four weeks,” Lizzie answered for her and Philip. “The missus says she wants Philip back so he can train this new hand they’re buying.”
“Us too,” Reenie said. “Four weeks.”
This was the second summer at the vacation resort for the six slaves. Three of the Southern men brought their slave women with them, first on ships and then riding in separate train cars after they entered free territory and boarded the Little Miami Railroad in Cincinnati. None of the Southern men brought their wives. Reenie’s master had brought his wife up close to the end of the previous summer, and Sweet’s mistress was dead. Lizzie’s master, Drayle, had never mentioned the possibility of bringing his wife.
It was no secret many of the northern whites who stayed at the resort disliked slavery. Even more, they disapproved of the slave women staying in the cottages with the white men. The resort was set in an area populated by Quakers and Methodists who declared themselves antislavery. East of Columbus, west of Dayton, sixty-four miles north of Cincinnati, the resort cast together an unlikely association of white Southern planters, white northerners, free coloreds, and slaves. So the six slaves stuck close together, even avoiding the free black servants who worked in the hotel.
Now there would be one more, upsetting the easy balance of six. Lizzie guessed that Mawu was staying in a cottage like the rest of them. Surely Mawu’s man wouldn’t put her in the hot hotel attic with the rest of the servants and male slaves. She wanted Mawu to be in a cottage near hers. Even with Reenie and Sweet, Lizzie sometimes got lonely at this place. Reenie was always working, and Sweet was always tired. They all speculated on whether the woman was pregnant with twins, big as she was.
The twin named George switched positions so that Reenie could finish the other side of his head. “I hear tell of this place nearby. colored folk. Free and fancy colored folk.”
“What you talking about, George?” Philip faced him.
“I heard them talking. It’s a place on the other side of them woods. It’s where the free folk go to have summertime. Just like this place, excepting it’s for us’n. All you got to do is walk right through them there woods.”
“Well, I ain’t never heard of such,” Lizzie said. “Free colored folk having summertime!”
Mawu edged so close Lizzie could smell her. “Well, Miss . . . what you say your name was?”
“Miss Lizzie, you must not ever been off your place before. It’s plenty of free colored folk. Rich, too.”
“I know it’s free colored folk,” Lizzie snapped. “I am just saying I ain’t never heard of them having summer in the country the way the white folks do.”
“George is right,” Reenie said. “I hear the white folks talking, too. Say they can’t understand why they build this place so close to that one.”
Everyone was quiet for a moment. They knew that Reenie, the oldest of the women, didn’t lie. If she said she heard it, there wasn’t a truer fact.
“Just how far is it?” Philip asked as Lizzie braided the next to last plait.
“Close enough to walk. Yessir it is.” George rocked back and forth.
“Shh . . .” Reenie said. “Calm yourself. You know these trees got ears.”
They all looked around as if Reenie had actually seen the trees lean forward. Except for Mawu. She looked right at George.
“So when us going?” Mawu asked.
Sweet stopped plaiting. “Us? Go? Ain’t no womenfolks going nowhere.”
“Well, you sho ain’t going seeing as to your condition and all. But I want to see these rich colored folks.” Mawu challenged them all with her voice. Lizzie tried to picture this Mawu’s master, what kind of man Tip might be, what kind of place she lived on down in Louisiana.
“All right,” Lizzie said and patted Philip on the shoulder.
“Your hair look real nice,” Sweet said. “That ought to keep for as long as you here.”
“It’ll help with the heat. This sun is hot for sho,” Philip said. He stood and stretched his legs and caught Mawu admiring his body as he did so. He knew he was something to look at. He knew it from the comments of slave owners and slave traders. He stole a peek at the new woman.
Lizzie sensed something between them. He cast his eyes back at the ground, but Lizzie thought there might be a secret meeting later. She had known Philip since she was a girl.
George stood, too, as Sweet gave him a final pat.
“I don’t know why you don’t want us to plait your hair,” Reenie said to Mawu. Any of the other women would have heard and obeyed the command in Reenie’s voice, but Mawu just shook her head.
“Come on, Miss Lizzie.” Sweet beckoned her over. “Let me do your head.” Lizzie planted herself on the ground and leaned forward so Sweet could start in the back.
Reenie pushed Henry out from her legs so he could follow the other two men who were already walking off. There was nothing left for her to do, so Reenie sat there glaring at Mawu as if her sudden uselessness were all her fault.
“You even know how to plait,” Reenie said in what didn’t even try to pass as an asking tone.
“Course I do. What kind of woman you think I is?” Mawu folded her arms across her chest.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Lizzie said, rising to the defense of Reenie. That woman had been too good to her to allow this red-headed, slow-talking woman to insult her.
“Well, I can sho see what kind of womens y’all is.”
Sweet let out a high-pitched belch. “What?”
“You heard me. Y’all ain’t talking about nothing, ain’t doing nothing. You probably run behind your mens all day sweeping up they dirt.”
Reenie calmed Lizzie with a touch of her toe on her friend’s calf.
Instead of words, instead of a tongue lashing she would remember until she left the camp, they gave Mawu silence. They rewarded the arrival of this seventh slave with a cold, thick wall of disregard. Treated her as if she weren’t there. Treated her as if she were an unfamiliar white woman sitting among them to whom they had no obligation. Sweet braided, Lizzie closed her eyes, and Reenie picked through the seeds the men had left.
Mawu sat there for a moment, waiting. Then she picked up her basket, perched it on her head, and walked stiff backed toward the resort.