Today is the anniversary of my birth. I have twenty-eight years. This diary and the pen I am writing with are the best gifts I got -- except maybe my cake. R. gave me the diary, the pen, and the white frosted tiers. He also gave me emerald earbobs. I think maybe my emeralds are just green glass; I hope maybe they be genuine peridots. I was born May 25, 1845, at half-past seven in the morning into slavery on a cotton farm a day’s ride from Atlanta. My father, Planter, was the master of the place; my mother was the Mammy. My half-sister, Other, was the belle of five counties. She was not beautiful, but men seldom recognized this, caught up in the cloud of commotion and scent in which she moved. R. certainly didn’t; he married her. But then again, he just left her. Maybe that means something to me. Maybe he’s just the unseldom one who do recognize.
If I strip the flesh off my bones, like they stripped the clothes off my flesh in the slave market down near the battery in Charleston, this would be my skeleton: childhood on a cotton farm; a time of shawl-fetch slavery away in Charleston; a bare-breasted hour on an auction block; drudge slavery as a maid in Beauty’s Atlanta brothel, when Milledgeville was the capital of Georgia and Atlanta was nothing; a season of candle-flame concubinage in the attic of that house; a watery Grand Tour of Europe; and, finally, concubinage in my own white clapboard home, with green shutters and gaslights, in the center (near the train depot) of a fast-growing city that has become the capital of Georgia, concubinage that persists till now. How many miles have I traveled to come back to here?
They called me Cinnamon because I was skinny as a stick and brown. But my name is Cynara. Now when I tell it, I say they called me Cinnamon because I was sweet and spicy. Sweet, hot, strong, and black -- like a good cup of coffee. Leastways, that’s how Planter liked his coffee.
Planter used to say I was his cinnamon and Mammy was his coffee.
He said those words a day I had gotten into trouble dashing before Other upon the stained-glass colored light that fell in rows of blue and pink diamonds down the wide hall of the big house. If I was ten years old, it must have been 1855. I bumped into the leg of the Hewitt sideboard. Other was ten years old too. It was one of those days we had back when everything seemed it would always be just as it has always been. Everything and everyone had a place and rested deep in it, or so it seemed that day to would-be knights and ten-year- olds. Then I bumped into that carved leg, and the shell-shaped bonbon dish jumped off Lady’s sideboard as if it just wanted to split into a hundred porcelain shards on the lemon-oiled pine floor. Something had changed, and I had changed it. Someone wanted to beat me. Mammy said she’d beat me good, with a belt. Other lied and said she’d knocked into the table. Said it ’cause she knew it would pain Mammy to give me a whipping.
And sometimes Planter said it when he heard me making up little rhymes to sing to myself. Sometimes when Mammy was putting Other to sleep on a day pallet for a nap, he would call for me to sit at his feet on the broad porch and sing my little songs to him. “Cindy, come sing, come sing! Ain’t you my Cinnamon and she my coffee?” he’d ask. And I’d be slow to go, because I knew someone might be missing me.
On the day Planter told me I was leaving the place, I asked him what he had meant when he said that I was his cinnamon and she was his coffee. He said to me, “I mean a man can do without his cinnamon but he can’t do without his coffee.” I poked my lip out. “I mean you’re a gracious plenty.”
“I belong here?”
“Gracious plenty foreign to me child.”
R. says Planter was an Irishman and all Irish are shiftless, lazy crackers, no matter how rich they get. He always wants me to look outside the neighborhood for models of my deportment. He often mentions that Georgia was once a penal colony. The first time he said it, I didn’t know what a “penal colony” was. He says only the English and the French know anything about gracious plenty. He says when Planter and Mammy got together, they cooked a broth too rich for potato-water blood.
It was Planter who sent me away, but he got the go-ahead from Mama. It was the year his third son died, and he said it would be a good turn for me. I was thirteen the day they rode me off. It was 1858.
Mammy was my Mama. Even though she let me go, I miss her. I miss her every time I look into a mirror and see her eyes. Sometimes I comb through my long springy curls and pretend that the hand holding the comb is hers. But I don’t know what that looks like. Then I wish I was Other, the girl whose sausage curls I’ve seen Mammy comb and comb. I wish for the tight kinks of the comber or the glossy sausages of the combed. I wish not to be out of the picture.
Mammy always called me Chile. She never called me soft or to her softness. She called me to do things, usually for Other, who she called Lamb. It was “Get dressed, Chile!” and “What’s mah Lamb gwanna wear?”
Excerpted from THE WIND DONE GONE © Copyright 2001 by Alice Randall. Reprinted with permission by Mariner Books. All rights reserved.
The Wind Done Gone