She carried on with her work, saying, "you came, then? Wasn't sure you would, but I guess I aroused your interest, eh?" Nodding her head toward the large sweating jar sat on the table, a net cloth draped over it to keep away insects, she said, "help yourself to some lemonade, now. I made it fresh."
Flo poured a glass and took a shy sip. "Hmm, that's real nice. Sorry I didn't get your name, you know, last time we met."
"I'm Ruth, Ruth Bellview. I puts some mint in with the lemon, gives it zing if you know what I mean?" She hauled up from the chair. "I got something for you in the house; I'll be back in a while; you just make yourself at home."
While she was gone, Flo took up the colander and carried on shelling the peas. It was something she liked doing for her mother, a treat; the pop of the pod and rattle of the peas as you pushed them out with your thumb into the pan, and the fresh, sweet smell. Absently Flo placed one into her mouth; it burst to her bite tasting like the best of every summer there had ever been.
Ruth appeared carrying a book that looked like some kind of photo album. She lowered herself into the chair and sat a while from the effort of it. Regarding her guest, she said, "see you gone made yourself useful with them peas."
Flo nodded, replying, "I like to shell peas, it's kind of therapeutic, plus you get to sneak a few fresh from the pod." She giggled, her nose wrinkling up.
"Hm-mm ain't that right. Now you put them peas aside and take this book here. Look on inside, third page, picture top right."
Flo opened the album and found the picture. It was quite old, slightly faded, but quite clear. You could see the features of the young black woman standing by a tree looking back at the camera. She didn't have much of an expression, perhaps looking a little dreamy, shy, like she wasn't used to being photographed. She was wearing a simple dress, no shoes or anything covering her head. She looked humble, but she had a dignity about the way she held herself. She was kind of pretty, like in the girl next door rather than Hollywood Belle.
Flo looked up, asking, "who is she?"
"Don't you see a little of you in there?" Ruth chuckled, her eyes wide. Lowering her voice and leaning toward Flo, she added, "she's your ma, your real ma!"
Flo said, "my mother?" She stared hard at the photo like she was willing it to come to life. She swallowed, asking, "what was her name?"
Ruth sat back, closed her eyes, saying, "yes, that's her all right, as God's my witness: she went by Isa."
Flo looked between Ruth and the picture, a myriad questions filling her mind. "I never saw a picture of her before. Where you get this from?"
"Well, that's probably the only one there is, taken soon after she ran away, maybe three months after you were born."
"Ran away? Where she run from?"
"Well, child, she weren't a free Negro; she was a slave on a private plantation in Alabama, working the cotton fields. Course they made out that there weren't no slavery back then, but she was beholden just like her mamma afore her."
Her words hung in the still summer's air. At the thought of them, Ruth made a sucking noise through her teeth.
"The house belonged to a man called Benjamin Fellow, and he had a son, Samuel. The boy had finished school and come to help manage the family plantation. His father gave him run of the help, and he soon took a fancy to Isa, the kind of fancy that weren't reciprocal. Well now, he had his way one time too many and Isa found out she was with child."
Flo felt waves of emotion, shock. Quietly she said, "me?"
"Yes, you child." Ruth let the words hang a little before continuing. "Well, see your mother was scared of what would happen to her when they found out she was having a baby, so she set to running away."
YOU ARE READING
Ballad of a SlaveGeneral Fiction
Washington 1961 - a young law student is told to visit a woman she's never met, who reveals the shocking story of Flo's birth mother setting her on a quest to find truth and justice.