The Wild Plum Tree a retelling of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale the Juniper Tree
The Deep South, 1793 When I was a girl, I was in love with the wild plum tree behind my master’s house. I marveled in the spring when it burst into beautiful white flowers, the closest thing we ever got to snow. And in the summer, I slipped away from my work to steal a yellow plum from the tree’s low branches. I’d eat it slowly, carefully, never letting so much as a drop of juice escape my lips, and suck on the plum pit until it turned to dust. I never let them catch me. If they did, I’d die.
My mother planted that tree. She was fifteen, smooth-cheeked and skinny as rail, her skin dark as ebony. Master always said my mother was the darkest girl he’d ever seen. He was in love with her, the girl black as night, who wore her hair in the French braid. At least that’s what she said, in the letter she left me before she died. My mother knelt and planted the plum tree at Master’s orders. He wanted something that would forever remind him of her.
I was never supposed to be born. See, they tell me black and white don’t mix, and that’s what I am. And even though I’m just as much white as black, I was treated as a slave all my life. Master told me he wouldn’t give me any special privileges, even though I was his daughter. He had another daughter too. Rachel. But she was white as white can be, so she got the life of wealth and as many plums as she ever wanted, while I had to get by with the few I could thieve from my own mother’s tree.
My mother was buried beneath the plum tree. It’s said that when she saw my face, she was so happy that she died. Throughout my girlhood, I desperately believed my mother’s spirit lived in that tree. When I touched the fruit to my lips, it was the closest thing I had to a kiss, an embrace. The tree was my private comfort, my solace. Nobody else knew what the wild plum tree meant to me.
I had a bitter childhood, working and sleeping alone, nothing to break the constant silence that clouded my ears, nothing but Master’s cruel words and my whispered prayers. I was a house slave, so I wasn’t even given the songs of the field, the gospel voices that echoed across the rows of crops. I only had to scrub and wash and launder and stitch all in a ruined, perfect quiet. It gets very lonely, with nobody to keep you company but your father, yourself, and God.
My solitude was finally broken, and with it came tragedy, the year I turned fourteen. I escaped to the garden in the dead of night, talking to my mother’s spirit. I believed her soul lived in the tree and her face shone from the stars. When I looked at the night sky, I saw nothing but her, black and bright and beautiful. “Mother?” I said.
I pretended she answered me. “Yes, daughter, love?”
“I’m fourteen today, mother.” I whispered, voice softer than a wish, rich with longing.
The wind sighed wistfully. “Oh, how long it has been since I have seen your face. You are so beautiful, my dear.”
“Why didn’t you stay?” I sunk to the ground, digging my palms into the earth, letting the world spin around me, dizzy with sorrow mixed with joy.
“Love is too precious to last. If I had stayed, the love we shared would have been destroyed eventually.”
I liked to think that. That she left me just to protect me. But I wasn’t really sure. “Thank you, mother.” I always called her mother. Other children called them Mama, but I never had. The word mother seemed quieter, softer, more like a melody. “I love you.”
A rustling interrupted my reverie. I jumped out of my skin, terrified. I’m dead. I’m gonna be seeing mother soon enough. What would they think, me out of bed? They’ll think I’m trying to escape...Master didn’t look kindly upon fugitives. Would he spare me on account of I was his daughter? It had never won me any favors before. Heart pounding, I tried to find a place to hide, but there was nothing.
Her white skin glowed in the dark, her dark brown hair the same color and length as mine. Rachel. “Hello? Who is it?” She was swinging a lantern, eyes squeezed shut in fear. “Somebody out here?”
I called out to her. “It’s just me, Rachel.”
She nearly dropped the lantern. “Wh-how do you know who I am?”
“It’s Mercy Ann.” I said, almost laughing. How could she forget the sound of her sister’s voice?
“Oh, heavens. Thank goodness it’s you.” She opened her eyes. We shared the same eyes, too, a pale hazelly color that I always thought was pretty, but Rachel hated. “Now, what on God’s green earth are you doing out here at this hour?”
“Nothing.” I stood up and dusted off my clothes.
“Oh you poor dear,” she crowed. “You must’ve been praying at your mama’s grave. How sweet. Hush, hush, don’t get sad now, love.”
I shrank back, embarrassed. “No, I wasn-”
“Shh…” she said. “Come inside with me.”
“I-is that allowed?” I said.
“It is with me,” she said with great pride. “Daddy lets me have my way. He loves me.”
“Must be nice,” I said without thinking. She reddened quicker than a summer tomato.
“I didn’t realize.” She said, lowering her head.
“It’s alright,” I said, relieved she didn’t punish me for speaking out of line. “Are you sure you want me in your house?”
“You work there, don’t you, silly?” she said. “Don’t fill your head with fluff. You’re a good gal. Far be it from me to leave you out here in the cold when you’re crying over your poor dear mama.”
I wasn’t crying, I wanted to say. I was talking to her. I nodded and followed her swishing, ruffly nightgown into the house.
“Why’d you come out here?” I said.
“Well, I heard a strange noise, and Daddy always tells me even though I’m a girl, I’ve got to defend myself. He says there’s a big war coming, and they won’t like what they see down here. He says men are gonna come with guns and horses and try to take all y’all. I thought you were one of them men.”
“Take who? What do you mean?” I said, tightening my grip on the side of my shift. The fabric bunched up in my palms.
“The gunmen want to take your people from us,” she said, eyes glistening in the moonlight. “And it isn’t fair, because you belong to Daddy, you don’t belong to them.”
“I don’t belong to anyone!” I burst out, then clapped my hands over my mouth. No, no, no. She laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mercy Ann. It’s good to be wanted. You know we’d pay a lot to get you back if anyone ever did take you. You’re safe here.” Rachel gave me a warm smile but I flinched. I didn’t want to live here forever. I’d clung to the hope since I was very young, that someday I would be free.
Rachel took me up the stairs into her room. It was lavishly decorated, furnished with thick carpet, ivory picture frames, and gold drapes above her soft mattress. She gestured to her bed. “Set here, darling.” I obeyed, my heart going wild. I’d never seen so much luxury before. There was a strange flutter in my chest. I felt my mother’s voice. Something is wrong, little one. You should not have come here. Rachel turned to her elaborate shelf, pulling out a thick book with detailed silver snakes winding up its’ painted spine. She grinned. “Do you want to hear a story?”
My sister flopped beside me, cracking open the book. She began to read, my heart still sitting uneasily in my chest. Her voice was soft and lilting.
“Long ago, at least two thousand years, there was a rich man who had a beautiful and pious wife, and they loved each other dearly. However, they had no children, though they wished very much to have some, and the woman prayed for them day and night, but they didn't get any, and they didn't get any. In front of their house there was a courtyard where there stood a juniper tree. One day in winter the woman was standing beneath it, peeling herself an apple, and while she was thus peeling the apple, she cut her finger, and the blood fell into the snow…” I was mesmerised by the story. I had never heard anything like it. It was a luscious and darkly haunting fairy tale, biblical references wound like threads of silk through images of a juniper tree casting shade on a mother’s body. I was in tears by the story’s end. Rachel put her soft white arm around my shoulder. “Sweet child,” she murmured. “Let me fix you some tea.”
I smeared my tears on the back of my hand. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?” I said. “I’ve got to go. I’ve got work in the morning.”
“Oh, you silly thing,” she laughed. “If you don’t want to work, you don’t have to work! I can get Daddy to excuse your chores for the day.”
“It’s not that simple,” I said, then shrank, realizing what I’d done. I criticized my Master’s daughter...what was I thinking?
She tightened her grip around me. “It’s easy as cherry pie.” Rachel leapt to her feet. “Wait here, love. I’m getting tea.” She giggled. “I don’t get to make you tea v’ry much. You always do it for me. It’s my turn.”
Rachel dashed from the room, soft cotton underskirt bouncing. I sank back on the bed, aghast. Rachel’s pity almost...embarrassed me. You wouldn’t take any pity like this, now would you, mother? I thought. I could hear her voice in my mind.
Oh, honey, you’d be surprised. Her voice was warmer than a cup of tea, steaming in my hands, beckoning as I prepared to hand it to Miss Rachel’s guests. I’ve taken pity from field slaves, even. It ain’t no easy life being a white man’s lover. And it ain’t easy being his daughter, either. I told her. I can’t...I didn’t get to finish my thought. The door creaked open. I smiled in spite of myself, thinking it was Rachel, here to serve me my first cup of tea.
It wasn’t Rachel.
It was Miss Gwendolyn Summers.
“Rachel?” She said, her voice clinging to the burnt edges of anger. She clenched her fists to her sides, the fabric of her pretty little petticoat bunching in her hands. “Why are you up at this ungodly hour?”
She blinked the sleep from her storm-cloud eyes. I saw the blood drain from her face as she took in the sight of me, a slave, lounging on her daughter’s bed with a book strewn nearby.
“What. Are. You. Doing here?” Her voice was cold and full of ice and fire.
“R-Rachel invi-invited me inside,” I stammered. “She said...she wanted to make me tea. T-to practice for, uh, for when she marries.”
“And you did not turn down her invitation?” Miss twisted her arms together, chin lifted defiantly. Her cheeks were red with smeared rouge and melted powder dripped down her face. She doesn’t wash up before bed? Even I do that. “No, ma’am.” How could I lie?
“Any good girl who knows her place would have told Rachel in no uncertain terms to leave you be.”
“Ma’am, with all due respect, I was taught never to disobey my master or his family.” My heart hammered in my chest. I could think of no right answer.
“Rachel is a foolish young girl. Her head is empty and full of silly dreams. I give you permission to deny her when you deem it sensible. And I do not give you permission to step foot inside my house after your work is done for the day. Is that clear?” She tensed, like the bobcat I’d seen behind my little cabin, hunting a helpless robin. I was the bird.
“Now hurry off to bed, or I’ll see to it that you get your just desserts in the morning, understand?”
At that moment, Rachel entered, beaming, a plateful of lacy yellow cookies and steaming tea balanced on a fancy platter. Her smile quickly faded when she saw her mother. “Oh!” she released a little gasp of surprise.
“Rachel Elizabeth Mary Evangeline Stewart Summers, take your tea to your side table and send this slave to her quarters.” Gwendolyn’s voice was commanding and harsher than I’d ever heard Master’s. And oh, I’d never heard of someone with such a long name as Rachel’s!
Rachel nodded. “Yes, mama. Right away.” She set down the tea and cookies on her oak table. “Take one, Mercy Ann,” she whispered. I looked at Gwendolyn.
“I suppose it may be allowed, this once,” Gwendolyn said with an imperious air. “Since Rachel took all the trouble to serve you.”
I slid a cookie from the plate as meek as I could. “Thank you, Miss Rachel, Missus Gwendolyn.”
“Run along, now, Mercy Ann,” Rachel said with a tinge of sorrow.
I stole away from the room, hoping this mess was over. But it was barely getting started.
Rachel insisted on reading to me every evening, after my work was done, underneath the wild plum tree, next to my mother’s grave. As the sun set, dyeing the sky a gentle lavender, she would settle next to me on the grass with two cups of tea, blushing and smiling. Her hands were soft as silk on top of mine. “We’re sisters, Mercy Ann,” she’d say. Then she’d stand, her with all her height, and reach up to the tippy-top of the little plum tree. She would pluck me a fruit and insist I eat. “Sisters help sisters, dove. I won’t let you starve.”
Miss Gwendolyn knew. I don’t know when she found out, but I was certain of it. She started treating me bad, giving more and more chores, until my back ached like the devil’s house. Miss Gwendolyn worked me until my hands were scoured and burning with lye, and I started not getting out of the big house until way past dark. She’d mutter under her breath as she saw me go by. I knew she hated me and it filled my heart with fear.
The more Rachel loved me, the more horrible my life became.
“What is she, jealous?” I said to Rainy, another slave, as we bent over the dishes. Rainy was new--she was the first. “Miss Gwendolyn has everything she wants. Why won’t she let me spend a couple minutes with my own sister?”
“Miss Gwendolyn doesn’t like that you’re sisters,” Rainy said sagely, scrubbing a china plate. “She hates that Master loved your mother more than he loves her. She believes in marriage.”
“Master doesn’t,” I said. Rainy nearly dropped the plate.
She erupted in laughter. “How could you say that!”
“He is my father,” I said, mocking Miss Gwendolyn’s snobby manners. “That alone shows that he tends to...stray.”
Rainy couldn’t stop giggling, the laughter bursting like bubbles to the edge of her lips. “What a scoundrel!” She spat out in between snickers. “Can’t keep his hands from wandering!”
This was dangerous talk we were having, but it was delightful. It tasted like forbidden plums, like poison lemon cookies, like delicious, like deadly.
Miss Gwendolyn’s wrath did not cease no matter how hard I worked, or how meek I became. I realized the only thing I could do to please her, would be to simply disappear. Every second I spent in her presence only reminded her of her husband’s betrayal. And she tasted blood.
But it wasn’t Miss Gwendolyn who caused the tragedy. It was my father.
I noticed his eyes on a late summer morning in 1793. They were wandering up my body, taking it in, soaking in the slight curves of my small figure. His eyes were filled with black blood and longing. I shuddered at his glance. He wants me. He wanted me. My father. I went about my tasks, trying to ignore his presence. But it seemed he was always there. When Rachel and I lay underneath the plum tree. As I scrubbed the kitchen floor. While I sat on my porch after dark, drawing by the light of my lone candle. He was there.
It was a bitter afternoon in August, the air thick and clogged. My hands were red and shredded from the cold bleach-water Miss Gwendolyn made me wash with. They burned like the devil, a fire in my bones. I seethed silent at the sink when Rachel dumped a tea tray next to me. “How’s such, Mercy Ann?” She leaned against the sink. “Want tea? Cookies? Bread? A book to read?”
I was unusually angry that day because of the throbbing in my palms. “No, Rachel. I don’t want any tea. I don’t any bread. And in case you’ve forgotten, I. Am. A. Slave. Not your sister. I can’t read.”
She recoiled, pain painted across her pale face. “I--” she hesitated. “I’m your sister. I am. No matter what.” She grabbed the glass tea tray and threw it to the ground. I jumped as it shattered into a hundred little pieces. “This is you,” she said, “when you refuse to accept my love.” Her eyes hardened. “There will be consequences.”
She fled, long hair flying behind her. I sank to the cold, gray kitchen floor. Silent sobs struggled up my throat. “No,” I whispered, “no.”
Rachel wasn’t used to not getting what she wanted. I had no doubt that I would pay the price.
Oh mother, oh, God, oh, God, I prayed. Help me. Help me. But neither of them answered.
I was alone in the world.
My father’s white-and-red face surfaced in the corner of the kitchen. “Oh, Mercy Ann,” he crooned, smiling. “I love you, just as I loved your mother. Soon you will share in her fate.”
My heart shattered. I scrambled away from him.
“I don’t look well upon escape artists, here, as you are aware, I’m sure.” He cocked his head sideways. “You know the punishment, sweet Mercy.”
Death. The punishment was death…
but what if death was the escape?
Fear flooded me, dark and gritty and strong. I closed my eyes and prayed, over and over. Lord, Lord, Lord. Mother. Mother. Please. I clenched my hands together and tilted my head towards the sky. Please. Master Summers grinned. “I’ll leave you to your work, now, honey. Don’t forget our little visit.” He hurried away.
I knew what I had to do, but it didn’t make me any less afraid.
I would rather die than be my father’s lover.
Please give me the courage, I asked God. Give me the strength to finally escape. I don’t want to live here forever. Someday I’ll be free. Miss Gwendolyn lounged in the sitting room, long legs crossed, red dress sparkling in the light of the parlor window. Makeup caked her face, and her long yellow curls were piled high on her head. She looked like she was awaiting a visit from her husband, but her eyes were empty. Blank, not glittering with youth like someone in love should be.
I checked to make sure nobody was near. I imagined God sitting on one shoulder, my mother at the other. They would protect me. And I’d be seeing them soon enough. Nothing to fear.
“Miss Gwendolyn?” I asked. The words came out timid.
“Mercy Ann?” she said with a tired voice. Her chin was cupped in her chipped-nail-hands.
“I have something to ask of you.” My legs started quaking.
“What?” she said, irritated. “Slaves don’t get to ask favors.”
“Let me escape,” I said softly.
She sprang to her feet. “No! Whatever makes you think…”
“Take me home to God,” I said.
She froze. “What do you mean?”
“Send me on my way home,” I said.
“Why? Why?” she repeated, sinking back down into her chair.
“I-” I hesitated, telling her this about her husband. “It’s Master. He...he wants to take me as a lover.”
Her eyes filled with wrath. “I never liked you, Mercy Ann. You remind me too much of that...that girl. Elizzie.”
“My mother?” Nobody ever told me her name.
“Yes, yes. Elizzie. He loved her more than me. But he has no right to...take his own daughter…” her voice broke. “No. Yes. I will help you escape. Although I don’t love you, I do owe you. For being forced to--grow up with that man as a father.”
“Then--then you owe it to Rachel, too,” I said, surprised at my own boldness.
“Yes,” she said quietly. “I do owe Rachel. I owe her a lot. You have both taught me much.” She straightened, squared her shoulders. “How-” her voice dropped an octave, softened like butter melting in the pan. “How do you suppose I do this?”
I closed my eyes and sighed. “Any way, ma’am, that keeps you from getting caught.” I kneaded my fingers together. “And if you may, my lady, bury me beneath the wild plum tree.”
Miss Gwendolyn gave me a half-day to make peace with God before my Great Escape. I figured I didn’t really need to make peace, though, being that I’d see him real soon. My real trouble, was my mother.
I went to the creek to pick herbs. It was sunny, the sky a candied, berry-muffin blue. Master Summers never went down to Whitaker Creek. It was far too muddy, the slopes slippery and slick, the water teeming with bugs. But I loved it there, the perfume of sludge shifting beneath the water, the heady scent of the wild herbs that were tangled along the creek-bed.
“Mother?” I said, twisting my fingers together. The wind whistled through the trees, but my mother stayed silent.
“I’m going to die soon, mother,” I said, “And I must admit I’m scared.”
I laid under that candy sky for hours, and my mother didn’t answer.
“Mercy Ann? I’ve forgiven you for your harsh words.” A powdery voice drifted through the air like a white-winged butterfly. Rachel. No. I didn’t want to face her, not today.
She lifted her skirts, unable to avoid the mud. It splattered across her blue bodice. “Ugh,” she said. “Why are you down here?”
I stood, suddenly aware of the mud striping my legs and back. “I like it here.”
“Well, I don’t,” Rachel sniffed. “Come on. It's much more pleasant inside. We can take tea and work on your reading.”
“No, not today, Rachel,” I said, more harshly than I meant to. “I’ve got work to do.”
She crossed her arms. “C’mon. The work can wait.”
Anger boiled in my stomach. “I’ve told you this already. I am a slave, Rachel! A slave. I cannot lay down my work just to take tea. If I don’t work, I’ll get beaten. Or worse.” My fear and rage consumed me, a lifetime of persecution surfacing in one red-hot wave.
She went white. “I-well-” for once seeming to be at a loss for words.
“Leave me be, Rachel. I can’t do this right now!” My eyes were filled with nothing but visions of stars and trees and dead mothers and masters lingering in the shadows and bent-backed slaves picking tobacco. Rachel was invisible--she had disappeared.
It was the last time I saw her,
(at least for a while).
Because then Miss Gwendolyn came for me.
“Mercy Ann,” she said, her voice wobbly. “Are you-have you made your peace?” She struggled down to the creek, picking around the especially muddy spots in her teetering heels.
“I think,” I said, still shaken. I began to regret what I’d said to Rachel. This would be the last time I ever saw her. That was no way to say goodbye to a sister.
Miss Gwendolyn handed me a glass, filled with a cold red liquid. “This should give you escape,” she said. “There will be some pain. Is that alright?” She was hesitant, almost scared. Tears threatened at the corners of her pale eyes, the color of washed blue linen. Her hand shook. I bit my tongue to keep my eyes from watering. I’m not scared. I am not scared. But you cannot fool your own emotions.
“It’s alright, Miss Gwendolyn,” I said. I took her cup, hoping to steady her hand. “I cannot thank you enough. I don’t mind the pain, see. I’ve been longing for this a great while.”
“Tain’t fair,” she said, clenching her delicate fists. “Someone so young to want death so bad.”
“It isn’t fair, Miss Gwendolyn,” I said, “to make people slaves.”
I watched her face bloom red as I drank deeply of my death.
The world turns dark around me. I am sinking, drowning...even as I lay dying I cannot escape it. The pain. I dreamed of a dark monster, curling its’ tendrils around my neck. The monster seized my chest, tightening its’ grip around my heart, pressing, pressing, until the beat slowed. The metronome of life that once flowed within me faded, until there was nothing, and no one, and like the very beginning when I slept in my mother’s womb, I was alone.
The solitude lasted an eternity. I dreamt of my life. I saw my mother, radiant with joy, dying at the sight of my infant face. I clung to the branches of the wild plum tree and watched it pass me by--my gray, sorrowed childhood, my strained adolescence. I even remembered my father, the few times he had been kind. The day I was sick and he brought soup and bread to me. The day I was exhausted from my labors, and he gave me a Saturday to rest. I viewed my life like a casual observer, as if it had all happened to someone else, not me. I felt empty, in a beautiful way. For the fullness of myself had become to hard to bear. It was lovely to be empty.
The dream was circular, like a snake eating its’ own tail. After a while, I returned to my death, but instead of a monster, I was greeted with a meadow. It was green and bright, sky dotted with clouds. I settled my skirts in the grass, feeling the cool blades brush against my legs. A foamy bouquet of wildflowers surrounded me, pink, yellow, and red. Prairie-fire, those flowers Rachel called Indian paintbrushes, were everywhere, setting the hills ablaze.
There was someone next to me, but I was relaxed and happy, and I didn’t want to talk. They nudged my arm, so I grudgingly rolled over to face them.
She was a crow of a girl--tiny, skin-and-bones, darker than the Black River. Tan freckles dusted her nose. She was sloe-eyed and gentle, with curly hair like corkscrews. “What a day,” she breathed. “Spring was my favorite season, once.”
“What changed?” I asked, twirling a prairie-fire stem.
“Now I love each season,” she said, settling into the grass. “In the winter, I am bare, and winds blanket me. In summer, I am fruitful, and warm. In autumn, I am given sweet release. But spring has a special place in my heart.”
Her words were like poetry. I didn’t understand them, but I loved them all the same. “Spring is my favorite, too,” I said. “They say in the spring Jesus rose from the dead.”
“So it is,” she said. “So it is.” She sighed again, a sigh of such contentment it made me jealous.
I quieted. “If only we should stay this way forever.” A warm wind stirred the lone tree at the edge of the meadow. I eased into the grass, sun on my skin. The whole world was mine.
“Perhaps we can,” she said. “You and I, picking flowers and sleeping under the stars, for all eternity.”
“What we will eat? What will we drink?”
“We will have no need for food. We will eat the moon, and drink of each other’s love.” She closed her eyes.
I laughed. “Well, I’ll have to know your name before we make such hasty decisions.” I picked another Indian paintbrush.
She sat up and smiled, stuck out her hand. “Elizzie Summers. It’s a pleasure.”
In this dreamlike state, I didn’t understand. “Pleasure,” I said. “I think I’ve heard that somewhere.”
“I am sure you have,” she said, “I died very young.” There was sadness in her deep black eyes.
Despite her sorrow, I laughed. “You aren’t dead. Why, we couldn’t be talking if you were!”
She gave a half-smile. “That is true. How wise you are, my daughter.”
“I am nobody’s daughter,” I said without thinking. “I grew up alone.”
“You will be alone no longer,” Elizzie said softly. I saw tears in her gentle eyes. “From now on, you will fly.”
When I woke up, I was a bird. Honest, I was. My feathers were golden brown, and my song was sweet. I was perched in a familiar tree. Elizzie’s voice echoed in my ears. From now on, you will fly. A song sprang to my mind, unbidden. An old poem, from the story Rachel once read me.
My mother, she killed me, My father, he stilled me, My sister in the sorrowed glen Gathered all my bones and then Buried them beneath the wild plum tree Kywitt, kywitt What a beautiful bird am I. I didn’t know how long it had been. Hours, days, weeks; I was unsure. Already my grave lay under the tree. It did not say my name-it was only a stone.
Rachel was draped there like a discarded tea-towel, keening, bent over my buried body. I wanted to comfort her but didn’t know how, so I sang.
My sister in the sorrowed glen, gathered all my bones and then… She didn’t understand, but the lilt of the song seemed to give her solace. Others were drawn to it. For the first time, many gathered around my mother’s plum tree, and admired its’ beauty, and the tragedy that seemed to cling to its’ branches.
I sang with renewed passion, a burning hatred for my father and what he had done. My father, he stilled me. I thanked Gwendolyn for her courage. My mother, she killed me. And when the song ended, I began again. And again, as more gathered beneath the wild plum tree.
Until another voice joined me.
It was rich and low, a quivering alto, strong and yet vulnerable. Buried me beneath...the wild plum tree. I quieted so that I may listen to this new voice.
He will not win, against you, beloved For hate and death and sin, do not win, beloved She buried us beneath, this tree, beloved Because she loved you, and she loved me, beloved Do not cry, do not cry I will give you legs, so no longer do you fly.
That voice--it was my mother’s voice. I took up her refrain. I will give you legs, so no longer do you fly. Everything came to me at once.
My mother’s spirit lived in the wild plum tree. That’s why I’d always felt so close to her in its’ shadow, and why I had heard her voice. It was never just the fevered imagination of a grieving girl. It was real. When I died, she was heartbroken. It is said that Elizzie’s tears flooded the sky, and it rained on the Summers Plantation for the next twenty years.
My mother had to make a bargain with God to save me.
“If you let my daughter live again, as a free woman, I will return to heaven as you wish me to,” she’d said. “I will leave this tree.”
God had never wanted her to live in the tree, but she had insisted, saying she needed to be near me. So it did not take much persuading on her part before he agreed.
“But call her the name you chose,” he said, “Not the name she has been given.”
“So it is,” breathed my mother, Elizzie. “Agape.”
Agape. The name called to me. Your true name. It means unconditional love. A love that can only be compared to God’s. Or maybe a mother’s.
I could live, and be free
if only my name would be unconditional love.
II Years Later Juniper, Ohio “My name is Agape Springs,” I said, clenching my steamer trunk until my knuckles turned red.
The woman laughed, big jowls shaking. “Sounds like a church,” she said between spurts of giggles.
“It is an unusual name,” I admitted. “But I’m quite unusual, myself.”
She kept laughing, heartily as ever. I smiled. She seemed like a nice lady. But her laughter faded when she scanned my ticket. “Now, what’s a good girly like you doing, heading down there? Them slave cotchers’ll take you soon as they see that little face.”
“It’s my home,” I said, without explanation. “Everyone has to visit their mother.”
She went scarlet. “So you weren’t born free, then. Oh, my, they’ll really cotch ya.”
“I was born free,” I told her. “It was life that made me a slave.”
“Crimson Adams,” she said, “I heard his speech jus’ yesterday.”
My train pulled into the station. “Lovely meeting you, Miss,” I said.
“Are you sure you want to go down there, Agape?”
“I’m sure as beans.”
The world glided past me. Oh, how I savored every moment on the steam train. The way the world danced by my window, sky and clouds and rolling hills blended together like paint in water. I especially loved it when it rained, the water pattering on the window pane, turning everything gray and drippy.
It was a three-day train ride from Juniper, Ohio to Grayton, the town nearest Summers Farm. Jitters shook me the whole way. It was true, the South was crawling with slave catchers. I couldn’t stand to lose my freedom.
The first day I was free it felt like I was truly living. I woke up in a hotel in Juniper, safely tucked behind the Ohio River. The bed was comfortable, and there were spicy mints under the pillow. I danced and spun, drinking the sky, holding the world in the palm of my hand. I could do anything!
I got a job as a secretary for a black church board. I kept notes diligently, and they paid me well. Rachel’s reading lessons paid off after all. And the reverend says, “You’re well-spoken, dear.” I’m well-spoken!
I have many dear friends in Juniper-Mary, Aileen, Frances, to name a few. But at times I would catch myself wondering how Rainy was doing, and if she still had to labor over Miss Gwendolyn’s dishes, this time alone.
After two years of enjoying my freedom without a care, I knew it was time to go home. Not forever, but only for a day.
I put a white-gloved hand against the window, feeling the cool glass though the thin fabric. These were merely linen gloves, but Mrs. Ray from church let me borrow them, and they were her dearest possession, so to me, they were worth more than gold. I wore a white linsey-woolsey dress and scuffed boots, my short, dark curls springy beneath my beat-up borrowed hat. I felt grand. The further South we flew, the nastier looks I got. One lady even crossed herself, which only made me laugh. God and I, we’re on first-name terms. I call him Adonai, and he calls me Love.
They don’t know my story. They don’t know me at all.
And here’s where my story catches up with me. Now, here I sit, the train screeching into the station, a glimmering, steaming blur. I peel myself from the seat, grab my steamer trunk, and leave, a bit dizzy on my feet. I’ve never taken a train ride before. I’m almost drunk on the thrill of it.
The station is only seven miles to Summers Plantation. I should be there by tomorrow. I walk all night, heart going wild, and by morning, exhausted, I reach the gates of Summers. There’s a girl guarding the entrance. Rainy! My heart jumps to see my long-lost friend.
She looks at me, and her dark eyes widen, hand flying to her mouth. She starts to speak. “Are you--” then catches herself. “No. She’s been--I saw her dead.”
“What on heaven and earth are you talking about?” I ask, though I know.
Rainy nods in submission. “So sorry, miss. You...bear a strange resemblance to someone I once knew.”
“Ah,” I say. “Thank you. My name is Agape Springs.” I stick out my hand and she takes it. Her handshake is surprisingly firm. I feel her heartbeat, warm against my skin. Its’ been so long. It takes all my strength (of which I have a lot) not to cry.
I can tell she still isn’t fully convinced, because she opens the gate without question, and her eyes follow me as I retreat down the path to the house.
The tree still stands, strong-branched and lavish with plums, but now there are three graves spotted beneath its’ shadow. Two are unmarked gray stones, and one is so worn with mold I can scarcely read what’s engraven there. I kneel in the dirt, unafraid of soiling my white dress, and clean the stone with my sleeve. Gwendolyn Summers, Beloved Mother. I silently bid Miss Gwendolyn goodbye, and wonder how it was that she died, and why she asked to be buried here of all places, next to her husband’s mistress and his lovechild.
I unfold a thin knife from my dress-pocket, and take the biggest stone in my hand. Elizzie. She loved spring. I carve in my chicken-scratch scrawl. It isn’t much, but it’s there. My mother deserves much more than an unmarked grave.
I think I deserve some honor too. Maybe just a little bit. I take my knife to the second stone. Mercy Ann Summers. Beneath the name I scratch out a short poem as it rises to my mind.
Though she once was quite alive She is now dead as can be And her stricken body was replaced With a name, Agape. It’s true. Mercy Ann Summers is buried beneath the plum tree, where she can sleep in peace. I am not her any longer. I am someone else. Coming here today is my funeral, the funeral I never got.
I lay in the heat of the Southern sun beneath the tree for a while, lost in that no-man’s-land between memory and sorrow. I am drifting, a foreigner in the land of my past. I have left this world behind, and it feels strange to me now. He was in love with her, the girl black as night. I see my mother dance, eyes alight. He had another daughter too. Rachel. But she was white as white can be, so she got the life of wealth and as many plums as she ever wanted. Once there was a time when black and white were all that mattered. Now heart is the only thing that I value. The world turns dark around me. I am sinking, drowning...even as I lay dying I cannot escape it. The pain. I still dream of that pain. When I woke up, I was a bird. Honest, I was. Twined between my memories is a thread of sobs. I open my eyes to find a girl hunched over my grave. I sit up. She whirls around, fixing her eyes on me. “Get out!” she screams. “Get out, you evil thing!”
I keep my voice soft. “I am not evil. I am love.”
“You’ve haunted me enough! You’ve had your fun, now go.” Her face is streaked with mud and tears. “I said go.”
“I know you’re afraid, but do not be,” I tell her, placing my hand on her shoulder. She looks like she wants to run, but can’t, some unseen power holding her steady. “I’m not who you think I am.”
“Mercy Ann?” she whispers between sobs.
“She is gone,” I say, tilting my head towards the sun. Rachel does the same.
“Then-who are you?” She says, the look in her eyes like a lost child.
“My name is Everlasting Love,” I say. “And you are my sister.”
She breaks down in tears, then draws me into an embrace. Warm, alive, our hearts beat in tandem. I’ve been waiting so long to see her again. And this shall be the last time. This time will be goodbye.
I break away from her, and we join hands. “Live well, Rachel Summers,” I tell her, “And know that you are free, as am I.”
“You are free,” she says, a look of wonder in her eyes. “Congratulations, dear.”
“I was never not free,” I said, “I simply had to wait a while.”
I kissed her cheek. “Say goodbye to your father, for me,” I said.
“When he learns of this he will die of fright!”
“Then you’ll be freer than ever,” I said with a laugh. “I have to go, I hope you understand.”
“I do,” she said. “Come back, soon.”
I hugged her one last time. “I will,” I said, knowing it was a lie.
Just as in birth, and in death, I was alone. I walked into the beautiful dusk, a truly free woman at last, no longer in love with the wild plum tree, but rather, in love with life.