All is well until Dara, a servant at Courtfield Manor, returns to her small abode in the servants quarter and finds her husband has not returned from the fields. Only after questioning her daughter and neighbors, Dara discover’s that her husband, James, has been sold. Each day after that, Dara’s feelings numb and her smile rarely appears. Will she ever see him again?
Together and Free
Slowly peeling the wet potato over a large wooden bucket, Dara heard a little bell in the distance. As the gentle ringing continued, Dara realized she was being called. Oh dear. Quickly setting the potato and knife on the table by the cook, she wiped her hands on the stained apron tied around her petite waist. “Where you goin, girl?” Hannah questioned. Not stopping for an answer, she continued, “These potatoes need peelin for dinner and I can’t do-”
“Isabel’s calling for me. I’ll be right back,” Dara promised. Rushing up the servant’s stairwell, two stairs at a time, she fixed her thick black hair and retied the maid’s white hairpiece that rested on her head. Coming to the main staircase of Courtfield Manor, Dara composed herself and calmly took the stairs one at a time. Once she reached Isabel’s bedroom, she smoothed out her white skirt and knocked on the door. “Miss Isabel, it’s Dara.”
“Come in,” her stony voice answered.
Ugh…“Yes ma’am, you called for me? What can I do you for, miss?”
“Dara, this is the second time you’ve delayed in coming when I call.” Fiddling with her hairbrush, Isabel continued. “I really don’t understand your reasons for moving so slowly lately.”
“Sorry miss.” Dara answered quietly.
“Now, before dinner, I am going to call on the Withers. Their poor son has enlisted himself in this dreadful war…” As Isabel continued ranting about the Civil War, Dara took her cue and began bushing Isabel’s long, golden hair. The war may have been a dreadful thing for white folk, but Dara hoped every night that the end of it would free the slaves. She wanted her own home and kitchen, and James could come home every night after working. And little Lila could play with real dolls in her own bedroom. Dara dreamed on as she helped Isabel into her calling dress, then quietly exitting the room, leaving Isabel to make final touches on her outfit.
“Well, you sleep well, child,” Hannah stated, bidding Dara goodnight after the servants’ dinner. Beginning to clean the kitchen up, Hannah added, “Tell that husband of yours I said hello.”
“I will,” Dara replied, smiling at the dear old woman. She looked forward to seeing James every night – enjoying his strong embrace and gentle words. Stepping into the cool night breeze, Dara began walking to the servants quarters with all the other women who worked in Courtfield Manor. The cool air swept into the small hut as Dara walked in. “Mamma!” Lila, Dara’s three year old daughter, hopped out of her little bed and ran to her mother, thick black braids bouncing around her precious face. As she hugged her mother’s leg tightly, Dara smiled down at her. “Hello sweetie,” Looking around the one room home, Dara did not see James. “Where’s papa, honey?”
Shrugging her shoulders, Lila answered “I waiteded for him for a long time, but he not come home.” Dara smirked at Lila’s cute mispronounced words, knowing she picked them up from the other children on the plantation – but could not help worrying about James. Where could he be? The field hands usually quit working when the sun set, which had been over an hour ago. He couldn’t still be putting the tools away. With so many men, that job took less than a quarter of an hour. I wonder if he’s hurt. Worry tugged on the corners of her mouth and her brow furrowed. “Alright honey, I’m going to ask Miss Berta’s husband if he knows anything. I’ll be right back. Stay here.” Patting Lila’s shoulder affectionately, Dara stepped outside once again, taking a few steps to Roberta’s home, the hut connected to hers on the right. Roberta, being permitted to stay home because of her pregnancy, watched Lila every day while Dara worked in the Manor. Starring into the darkness, Dara hoped no one was asleep. “Roberta?”
“Dara? Come on in,” she ordered faintly. As Dara stepped inside, Roberta continued “Now, what can I do for you?” Dara could barely make out her smile in the darkness, but she knew it well and asked, “James didn’t come back from the field today. I was wondering, has Thomas gone to bed yet? I just wanted to ask him if he knew anything.”
“He just went out to fetch some water. Have a seat until he comes back,” Roberta offered her an old chair. “So, James didn’t come home, huh?”
What would they be doing right now? James thought, tied to the back of a wagon along with several slaves. The morning had dawned and they continued the long walk to a new farm. Their bare, calloused feet, unaffected by the rocks and pebbles, covered several miles yesterday and now they continued the journey.
James could not stop thinking about Dara and Lila. Lila had probably stayed up, waiting for him, and Dara no doubt cried herself to sleep when she found out. He longed for her sweet voice and gentle hands – for her thin body to lean against his as she stood on tip toe to kiss him before he headed to the fields. Anger filled tears distorted his vision blurry and he clenched his jaw. Anger pierced his heart and he hated this new master. The young man and James’ old master had apparently made a wager. His master lost, and this young man wanted twenty of the hardest working men on the farm. James had been chosen. His thoughts drifted back to Dara and Lila. If I had only had a chance to say goodbye – to let them know it would be okay. “Alright, move along you lazy bunch,” he shouted. Turning to James, Will joked, “And I thought we were chosen for our hard work.” James chuckled and other men snorted at his humor. “Quiet back there!” Will had always been the one to make light of everything. He was not married, however, so the farm where he worked mattered little. James had never moved, though. He was born a slave at Courtfield Manor and was never sold – until now.
Numbly walking up the small hill to Courtfield Manor, Dara could not keep her mind off James. Where would he be right now? Would she ever see him again? She shouldn’t be so surprised. But should she have really been prepared for it? James never slacked in his work – at least when he was able. He worked at the best of his ability so they would always stay together – and so did she. Lila was not old enough to work yet, but when she was, Dara had to explain it to her. Poor little dear, she had no idea where her father was, and why he never came home last night. “Papa’s gone to work for a different farm, dear. But he’ll come back someday. Don’t worry.” This answer had contented Lila last night, but she would eventually start asking more questions – and Dara would have to answer them. But she could not answer what she did not know. Why had James been sold? Hot tears met the cool morning air and Dara blinked rapidly to send them away. She had to be ready for another day of work. But it would seem so much longer with her worrying about James. Looking up at the back of Courtfield Manor, Dara sighed heavily and opened the servants’ door to the kitchen.
Three years later, Hannah hustled down the stairs into the kitchen. “Dara! Dara!” Coming out of her daze, Dara answered “Yes, Hannah?”
“I just came back from the upstairs room where the mister was talking. I had to give them their breakfast. Now, as I was sayin, I saw a bit of the newspaper and the headline had something ado about the war. And as I was settin everything down, he was in a rage about how the ‘blasted war’ was at and end and the slaves free. But Dara, we can leave! Go anywhere we like! You hearin me girl!”
Dara’s thoughts raced back to James. It had been three years since he had been taken away and now she could find him, if he was even still alive. “Yes, yes I hear you Hannah!”
James walked. Each step brought him closer to Dara and Lila. Lila would be six now. As Courtfield Manor came into view, James headed around the back, towards the servants’ quarters. Walking through the now open gate, James heard Thomas’ fatherly voice, “James? It’s so good to see you! How long has it been, three years?”
Smiling, James patted Thomas on the back. “Too long, Thomas. It’s good to see you too. Where’s Dara?”
“Of course you’d ask that first,” Thomas joked. “At their hut, I expect.”
As James approached the hut his strides increased. Lila was sitting in front of the house, her little nightgown wrapped up and sitting on her lap. She was holding a little straw haired doll, but, seeing him, she stopped playing with it. Tilting her head slightly, she looked at him, recognizing something. Her little eye brows furrowed as the studied his face. Eyes suddenly filling with excitement, she dropped her things and ran over to him. “Papa!” Scooping her up, James rested her head on his shoulder and rubbed her back. “My sweet little Lila,” he whispered.
“Papa!” Dara’s keen ear picked up on the phrase her daughter just used. James? Rushing to the door, she watched as James set Lila down on the ground. She squirmed with excitement and ran to her mother. “Momma! Momma Papa’s home! You were right! He came back!” Dara stared into James’ dark eyes as he approached. Wrapping warm arms around her, James swung Dara around as she laughed and cried. Setting her down, Dara stared into James’ welcoming eyes. They were free. Together and free.