White Fire

Black rope glimmers in the bright sunlight, appearing as a dark snake streaking through the air. A bystander might contemplate its beauty, citing its stark contrast to the pale blue of the cloudless sky. He might be awed by the sheer elegance of the landscape: the golden rows of crops, rich green grass, and rolling fields of the distant horizon, distinctly visible on this clear day. The fresh smell in the air, clean and crisp, might bring a smile to his face, crinkling the etched lines of his suntanned body, as his eyes squint into the bright daylight.

The rope cracks down, biting into a black girl’s back – my back. Already deeply burned by the constant sun raging above, my skin is sensitive to any touch. The brutal speed of the whip causes blood to drip down my back, tickling me, as it oozes away from the deep cut. A white fire flashes in my view, pain floods my body, nauseating me. Vomit comes into my mouth, but I swallow it, the usually horrible taste associated with throw-up void in my moment of panic. I bite my lip to hold off the oncoming scream, allowing no sound to echo in the silence that will disclose my frailty. My entire body aches from the cruel heat mixed with the sting of the whip. The faces of my friends blur before my eyes; sometimes I see double, sometimes nothing at all. They stand in a perfectly straight line, at attention, ready to heed anything the master orders. At the moment, they stare at me. Their faces are solemn, yet they wince each time I am beaten. Wisdom is impressed in many of their faces, knowledge learned from the many years of keeping their ideas to themselves. All, even three-year-old Anna, have experienced torture, but never as vile as this. I attempt to smile at them, to show that I am okay.

Nevertheless, just as I try to reassure them, the black serpent strikes again, sending spasms of steady pain across my body. Still, I do not admit defeat. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice a stream of blood dripping from my parched lips onto the beige crate I am lying on, and then all becomes a vast darkness from which I am unable to escape, as my past enfolds into the abominable present.

“Run, run away, chil’!” a heavyset woman pushed an eight-year old girl out of a shabby cabin into the blackness beyond.

“No, Mama! I ain’t! I need ya!” her voice sounded shrill, helpless.

“Go, it be better fo’ you! You ain’t enjoyin’ bein’ a slave! Listen, chil’; you fast and you hide easy. Go now!” The door slammed shut behind her. Chila pounded on the door, but her attempts proved futile, yielding no response. With tears pouring down her small black face, she ran into the fields; her ripped, faded dress billowed out behind her. As she reached the fence marking the boundary of the estate, Chila halted. She had never gone past the gate; now was her chance to be free, yet it was at the expense of never seeing her family and friends again. Without thinking any longer, she ducked her head and entered the unknown world beyond where she had spent the past eight years of her life.

For two more hours, she continued to run, not knowing where she was heading. Anywhere but her past would suffice. Finally, breathless, the child sank down beneath a tree, resting her head on the rough trunk. Sleep quickly overcame her fears, and she fell into a long, dreamless slumber.

Someone was shaking her hard and pulling her to her feet. With a jerk, her dark brown eyes opened to view the early morning light and a white man tugging at her dress. It gave way, and she tumbled back onto the gravel, which scraped against her bare neck and tattered clothing. The man stood towering above her with a piece of her pink garment in his left hand. Black shoes sparkled in the sunlight. He had an impeccably neat demeanor; not a hair was out of line and his clothing was immaculate. Next to him, Chila appeared even more ragged than usual. Her innocent expression was wide and filled with awe and fear, as she peered up at him.

“She appears to be capable of much work, Lawrence. I’m going to take her back to the plantation.” A man had just come into view from the side of the wagon, his conduct identical to the one standing beside her. However, Chila had no time to stare any longer, for she was being dragged along to the side of the wagon and hoisted inside. Now he turned to her, “You’re going to work for me now, girl.”

“No, I ain’t! I ain’t workin’ no more!” she cried, finally realizing the intent of the two men. “Gettoffme!” Her words blended together in the moment of panic.

“Sir, are you sure that you want her? I mean, look at her temper.”

“Any temper can be tamed, Lawrence. Any will can be broken. That’s something I’ve learned over the years. Why, I used to be just as rebellious.”

“Sir, now really,” Lawrence seemed to be annoyed at the other’s absurdity.

“Girl, what’s your name?”

“Ch-Ch-Chila.” Her voice quavered as she spoke.

“Look, Lawrence, she’s scared out of her wits, that’s all.”


“Lawrence, I would remind you that I own the plantation, not you.”

Just silence.

“Eihh!” The child looked around for the source of the sound, finally laying her eyes on a boy only a little older than she, who was holding the three beautiful bays’ reins. The boy appeared quite healthy; however, as the two made eye contact, there seemed to be a feeling of relieved tension about him. It was as if he had a fear that would be allayed when he returned home. As the wagon rattled down the well-kept road, Chila clutched at the sides of the wooden plank she was perched on. As a young girl, she had played in a similar wagon, but she had never been in one that was moving. The velocity of the cart scared her. Nevertheless, she listened intently to the sound of the wheels rolling over the dirt road and watched the endless rows of golden farmland passing by on all sides.

“Chila, Chila,” the conversation had turned back to her. Lawrence watched as his master attempted to gain the young girl’s attention. She peered into his hazel eyes, noticing all the wisdom he held in them. Despite this warmth he embodied, there seemed to be a sadness about him. As Chila attempted to investigate it further, his voice penetrated her thoughts once again. “Chila, my name is Mr. Penney, but you will call me ‘Sir.’ I have a plantation over there.” Here he lifted his finger and pointed into the distance, at the vast layers of acreage. “Yesterday, Lawrence and I went to visit Mr. Richesse, who owns land in the direction we just came from. We offered to aid him in any way possible. That is our philosophy with most people.” Here Chila’s puzzled expression must have given her away, for his large vocabulary confused her. “Ahh, see, you will need my help after all. In other words, I try to lend a hand to all people who may be in need of it. For you, I promise to teach you how to read and write. In return, you must do the basic housework: wash the laundry, mend the clothes, and dust the shelves. Do we have an agreement?”

As Mr. Penney watched the girl, her amazement surprised him. She appeared to be taken aback by his kindness and could only manage to nod in agreement. Lawrence still watched their conversation with a look of great scorn on his face.

“Now, Chila. I will be nice to you and treat you fairly, but if you disobey the basic rules I set for you, I will become stricter. Is that understood?” Again, the girl nodded, her thick, black hair shaking as she did so.

They continued on in silence. “Well, here we are.” In her excitement, Chila had not noticed that the wagon had been motionless for several minutes. “Wait here a moment. I’ll be right back.”

Mr. Penney jumped casually down, turning and smiling encouragingly up at her as he walked away. She expected Lawrence to do the same. Instead, he turned to her, and with a menacing look, left her alone in the cart.

Chila, accustomed to such rude treatment, ignored him and began to observe her surroundings. By now, the sun had climbed high into the sky and the temperature was excrutiating. She rolled up the sleeves of her plain, newly tattered dress and gazed at the workers in the fields. All had beads of sweat trickling down their foreheads and back. As Chila surveyed the view, she noticed that something was different from back at home. After several more minutes of staring, the answer dawned on her. No white men lounged next to the hard-working slaves, holding whips in their hands, threatening all those who stopped for one second to take a breath of the fresh air.

“Why, Mr. Penney mus’ be awf’lly nice to not have no watchers in the fields,” she whispered to herself.

“I’m sorry, what was that, honey?” A white woman had appeared at the side of the wagon. She was plump with a double-chin. A black ribbon tied up in her hair blended perfectly with her dark brown curls and light complexion. She sported a pale yellow dress with a white apron around her waist, both falling slightly below the knees. Chila’s gaze traveled back upward to meet the woman’s eyes. They were warm and motherly, with a radiant twinkle inside the dazzling blue that the child had never seen before. Her thin mouth smiled sweetly at the child.

Chila returned the grin and answered the previously asked question. “Ain’t nothin’, Ma’am. Jus’ tellin’ me somethin’.”

“Well, then let’s get you into the house. Lunch won’t be served for another hour, but I’m sure Mammi could find you something to eat. Oh, I do think I’m forgetting my manners. I’m Mrs. Penney. Oh, and we’ll find you another dress. My husband told me about tearing it, and he’s awfully sorry. Well, come along, then, my dear.” Mrs. Penney spoke briskly, but her warm nature filled Chila’s heart with joy. She followed the older woman into the house, staring at the elaborate furniture. It was just as inviting as Mrs. Penney, helping Chila to feel happier than she could ever remember being.

As they marched through the halls, another woman came to greet them. “Hello, Mammi,” Mrs. Penney acknowledged the newcomer. “This is Chila. My husband found her today and brought her back to work on the farm. She needs something to eat and some clothes to wear. Oh, and she needs a bath.” Chila’s mind traveled as Mrs. Penney rambled on. Her mouth had dropped open at the woman’s suggestion of her having all those amenities. She had never been treated so kindly by a white, and the generosity astounded her.

“Well, come along, Chila. Let’s see if we can find you some soup and get you all cleaned up.”

White flashes shine before her eyes. What is happening? “Mammi, save me!” She tries to cry out, but the pain is too sharp. Chila looks up into the dark eyes of a brutal white man, raising a whip to beat her. “No! Mammi, stop him! Help me! Mammi!” The only aid she receives comes in the form of a darkness that embraces her and tosses her into a delirious slumber once more.

“Morning, Mrs. Penney. Are you feeling better?” A thirteen-year old girl brought a wooden bowl of stew to an older woman lying in bed, her face burning with fever.

“Yes, Chila, thank you very much. I don’t know how I ever survived without you. Five years ago just seems like ages. What were you doing out alone in that field when my husband found you?”

“I don’t wish to talk about it, Ma’am. But you’ve been so good to me. I’m so happy that I could repay you.”

“Chila, go to Mr. Penney now. He has some bad news for you that I’m very sorry about.”

“Have I done something wrong?”

“No, honey. You have been a perfect angel and like a daughter to me.”

“Yes, Ma’am. Is there anything else you would like before I go to him?”

“No, I’m fine. Go along, now.” Chila walked hesitatingly down the narrow corridor. During the years she had lived with the Penneys, they had kept their original promise. Now she could speak, write and read English as well as any white. As Chila neared her master’s door, she paused, debating if she should run away so that she would never have to hear the bad news.

Spotting her in the doorway, Mr. Penney called out, “Chila, come in. Did you sleep well last night?”

“Yes, Sir. Mrs. Penney said that you wished to see me.” She decided to find out the reason for the meeting as soon as possible, rather than let her mind form absurd fantasies of her indubitable fate.

“Ahh, yes. Sit down please.” Chila took a seat across from him in one of the beautiful chairs she had admired when she first came to the plantation. He continued, “You have been a great help to my wife and me during the past five years, and I can never thank you enough.”

“You have helped me, too, Sir.”

“Yes, we have both helped each other. However, I am afraid that we have run into a bit of financial difficulties. We can barely scrape through paying the rent and the cotton fields haven’t been yielding enough.”

“I’m sorry to hear this, Sir.”

“Me too. I am afraid that we will have to sell some of our workers. Mr. Richesse has agreed to take you in.”

Chila stared blankly at her master. “Have I wronged you, Sir?”

“No, Chila, not in any way.” He leaned forward and held her hand in his. The dark color of her skin contrasted greatly with his pale fingers, outlining the difference in their social standings. “I’m sorry about this. You’ve really been a great help to us.”

Chila nodded her head and withdrew her hand from Mr. Penney’s grip. She arose from the chair and walked into the hall. Tears streamed from her eyes, and she was once again the hopeless girl she had been five years before.

Several days passed, and it came time for Chila to move to Mr. Richesses’s plantation. Three other workers were leaving with her. All had their only other set of clothes lying on their lap in the wagon. The cart bumped as it hit a ditch, causing all of them to bounce in their seats. They did not know what to expect.

Once again, a fork of white fire shoots before Chila’s eyes. She attempts to open them, but they are glued shut. Her back burns as more strokes from the whip dig into her bare skin. Chila calls out to Mammi, seeking her aid. Then her consciousness fully returns; she is not at the Penneys’ plantation. She now resides with the Richesses. They have an exorbitant amount of money, and their children are spoiled. Her old duties remain, except that she also has the responsibility of tending to the young ones. The three recalcitrant brats run all over the place, causing her job to be a near impossible task. The eldest, ten-year-old Molly, purposely dropped all the glass vases in the house yesterday before Chila caught up with her. Now she is being chastised for the mess the disobedient child caused. Chila knows where she is now. Anger at her unjust masters courses through her body as the black snake sinks its sharp fangs into her back, bringing darkness to her world for the last time.