Self-translated from Italian by Tiziana Vigni
In the dark fertile black belt of Greene County, Alabama, cotton bloomed in pale puffs of cream, closed like fists. The cotton gin awaited them in the granary, where it would claw out the fibers, drawing out at least 20 pounds of cotton per day.
On the list of rules hung on the doors of the slaves’ huts was written, “A slave is a human being, property of another, deprived by law of his freedom for life.”
Mary finished her work and readied herself for the evening prayer held in the toolshed. Her back still burned from the sun and the whipping scars were carved into her skin. The slavemaster, himself enslaved by her skin’s perfume of freshly mown grass, would sneak into her pallet that night while the tobacco leaves rustled lazily outside.
A sense of revulsion would seize her then. She was the most beautiful and expensive of the slaves and was pregnant by that swine, who after having used her would return to the sacred marital couch. The savor of the night would be erased by the rain of whip blows and cuffings the old wife unleashed on her: further bloody memories stitched into her memory and her flesh. The withered white bastard could not withstand the sight of a firm pair of thighs, and pink, scandalously parted, and succulent lips.
Whatever would become of the child growing within her? How would she ever defend him from that prune-faced witch? Her pride was so ferocious that she would never be desirable to the husband’s eyes… the embraces of that black woman had become a drug to him, lymph of eternal youth that sustained the masculinity of the slave owner, without which he would never be able to live until the end of his days.
Mary paused under the great white cedar tree to confer with her ancestors.
The roughness of the trunk’s dark bark hurried her caress; she had heard tell, in secret, low voices, of one Harriet Tubman’s “Underground Railroad”: Tubman whose head had been split by a piece of metal hurled at her, who helped poor devils like her escape from the hell of the plantation. Better death than to stay, also because soon the growth of her belly would show its obscene truth to all.
The tree spoke to her: it was the cheek of God transmitting strength to her that starry night.
Ready to run, with the agility of the African gazelle and the cunning of the bat-eared fox, while all forty of the plantation slaves, down to the last one, knew and assented in silence.
Her soul expanded and became sage and wise as the night lengthened over Planter’s estate in Greene County, Alabama. It burned with the living energy she would need. A dancing strength seethed between her legs, making it impossible for her to stay still, whispering to her from deep within with a guttural voice, ever stronger, modulated, ancestral, that she would make it. Her pregnancy gave her animal strength.
Slowly, she cracked the door of the toolshed, and the intense, acrid sweat of those within hit her, stunning her. A small bundle with food was there, ready to be passed to her, and the Spiritual that was about to begin would have covered the sound of her steps on the gravel drive before the night patrol. That night, the slaves’ unison voices would have accompanied her on her flight, warning the black man who had offered to stand as a signal of the danger: a desperate, encrypted language that had already saved many people’s lives. Mary joined into that song, with the quarter-tone modulations and the bodies undulating in unison, the feet striking an ostinato on the earth accompanying the tribal rhythm of the drums’ beat. The Second Great Awakening was for black-skinned men too: this she had heard, and of this she was certain: “All people are equal and free before God!” she thought trustingly. That night, the overflowing evocation of the Holy Spirit gave her the courage she needed to seize her slice of freedom on earth.
“Go down, Moses,” intoned the eldest of the group, weeping. It was the night of redemption. “Let my people go. Oppressed so hard, they couldn’t stand, Let my people go.” Those who stayed would pay the harsh price, but it was worth it.
In an instant, she was outside. The chorus swelled, the friendly voices filling the fibers of her body, her tense muscles, ready for the long flight to a new life worth living, beginning that night of rich promise.
They found her at dawn, wounded and panting. They hanged her immediately, before the sun finished rising, from a branch of the great white cedar tree. Her legs, slender as the cotton stalks, swung in the morning breeze—for too long. Planter cursed and swore all day until late into the night, knowing he would not survive long without Mary’s sweet juicy lips.
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home.
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home.
Go down Moses, Fisk Jubilee Singers—compilation album Song of America 2007. Cf. also the great Satchmo version with Louis Armstrong and the Sy Oliver Choir, as well as Nobel prize winner Bob Dylan’s version.
Also, read a book review of Kalicalypse: Subcontinental Science Fiction , a dual language edition (English-Italian), edited by Tarun K. Saint , Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay , and Francesco Verso , published in The Antonym.