Walking through the cotton fields was one of Sarah’s favourite things to do. Her mother would take her every afternoon after lunch as they were walking to the village and Sarah always looked forward to it.
But one day, Mama would not take her.
‘We’ll go tomorrow. Today, I have to make sure the laundry is done.’
Even at the tender age of four, Sarah knew her mother was lying. But what she didn’t know or understand was that her mother was terrified. That morning the family of a plantation owner only a few miles away had been found dead in their home. Rumours were that slaves had risen in rebellion, and subsequent investigations found other plantation owners dead in their houses. Warned by local officials to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, Sarah’s mother was not willing to risk the walk into town.
As night fell, Sarah watched her parents pacing round and round the house, double- and triple-checking every lock on every door and window. Sarah trailed behind her father, too scared to be more than a few feet from him. She dared not ask what was happening or why her parents were so anxious.
She was taken upstairs soon after and put to bed. Her mother lingered longer than usual but eventually, she left Sarah to sleep. Night-time was usually a magical time for Sarah; she would watch the moon rise from her bed. But not tonight.
Sarah was just dozing off when she heard a loud bang outside. She jumped from her bed and peered out the window. In the dim light, she caught a flash of light on metal and hurried back to bed, pulling the covers up round her head, sobbing in terror.
There was a scream, followed by a gunshot. Footsteps on the stairs. They were coming for her. She slid out of bed. Taking her teddy bear with her, she climbed into the fireplace. There was a recess just big enough to fit her tiny body. It was where she hid from her mama when she was in trouble.
The door handle to her room squeaked. Footsteps came nearer.
‘The bed’s been slept in!’
‘Search the room!’
These exclamations were followed by loud crashes of furniture being tossed aside. Sarah pressed herself further into the recess, trying to stay as quiet as she could. She wanted her mama!
‘We don’t have time for this!’
Sarah heard the men leave. She slid down the wall and curled up in a ball on the floor.
She didn’t know how long she stayed there. Time slipped into eternity. She would have stayed there forever, had her uncle, who had come to check his sister had not been affected by the rebellion, not remembered that Sarah liked to hide in her fireplace. He heard her ragged breathing the moment he opened her door. He lifted her out of the recess, her trembling body, cold and stiff. He carried her downstairs to the awaiting officials. Sarah peered out. A limp hand was visible from behind the door, lying in a pool of blood.
Sarah tried to wriggle free but her uncle had anticipated this. So instead she screamed, ‘Mama!’, before she was bundled out of the house.
I still remember that day vividly. I don’t think you can ever get over something like that. I was orphaned that day. My father’s body was found by the door from the servants’ quarters. He had obviously been trying to hold the rebels back.
Eventually, they found Nat Turner, the leader. And hanged him. It brings me no comfort. But his capture did offer something of an explanation: the inspiration for the rebellion, he said, was an eclipse.
Image: Takeshi Kuboki