Change occurs suddenly on November 7, 1861,
when the Union Navy attacks Port Royal Sound in South Carolina. Slavery ends across the surrounding sea islands after the planters flee. Ten thousand newly freed people, like Callie and her family, begin life under the authority of the US government.
A historical novel based on actual events from 1861 to 1863, Swift Currents describes the slaves’ transition from bondage to freedom through the lens of Callie and her two brothers. As they and others pursue education, work for wages, fight for freedom, and become landowners, their lives intersect with civilian and military authorities. Callie’s story seeks to help the nation come to terms with its racial history and serves to provide a greater understanding of shared stories, thus lessening the inherited prejudice of generations.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.71(d)|
Read an Excerpt
By David Bruce Grim
iUniverse LLCCopyright © 2014 David Bruce Grim
All rights reserved.
Though it was barely light, Callie was up early, her skin bathed in sweat before she even left her pallet. On this unusually warm and humid morning in late October, the tepid water in her washbowl added moisture to thick air but did not cool her. As she pondered the tasks ahead of her, Callie gently cleansed her sleeping daughter's peaceful brow.
Much was expected of Callie that day. After breakfast, she had to begin preparations for a feast on the plantation grounds before going to Beaufort to pick up the captain's favorite seasonings. After that, she would spend the rest of the day and much of the next in the cookhouse. Her thoughts wandered toward her younger brother, Lucas, the best slave boatman on the plantation, who would row her to town on the incoming tide. Missus Bowen had insisted gently that Lucas be on the Beaufort wharf to pick up her son as soon as the steamer brought him home from the Naval Academy.
Callie stepped from her one-room cabin to find the air so still that she felt a stir as mourning doves rose in a flutter just outside her door. With water on two sides of the point of land where the big house stood, the sea breeze would be up by late morning on most days. She looked forward to the relief it would bring, as soft light began to add depth to the dark shadows that moved with her up the familiar footpath.
Passing down the row of quarters reserved for the skilled slaves who worked directly with the planter and his family, she was grateful for the cabin she shared with her daughter. Their one-room home had a wooden floor and was sparsely furnished with a table, two chairs, and a bed just big enough for Sunny. Callie's pallet, near the small stone fireplace, had a blanket given to her by Captain Bowen that provided just enough cushion for Callie's long, slender frame. The captain had ordered his slaves to build the cabin especially for her about five years earlier. It was set slightly apart from the other shanties, affording some privacy for her. That the location also gave the captain cover for his dark purposes tempered her gratitude.
Typically, summer warmth remained on the sea islands through October, but the recent run of relentless sun, heat, and humidity challenged anyone attempting to work outdoors past noon. Callie watched the field hands in the dull haze as they moved slowly beyond the ocean of cotton plants to the sweet potato field. Digging out those wonderful roots from soil parched by the late-summer sun had been particularly exhausting since Captain Bowen was determined to get the sweet potatoes out of the ground and the cotton picked as quickly as possible. In that effort, one of the oldest hands on the plantation had died in the field on the previous day. From Callie's twenty-three years of life experience with Captain Bowen as master, she knew that his decision to cut work hours short by an hour for the rest of the week was an act of property protection more than one of human kindness.
With heart as heavy as the moist morning air, Callie knew she had to forge ahead. The words of her "mama" echoed in her ears as each new day began: "Dayclean, sunshine, wid Gawd, feel fine." She adhered to Mama Ruth's morning admonition, hoping for truth in its simplicity. Her spirit joined her faith to greet each new day with optimism, but her experience taught her to be wary.
Callie walked out from under the last live oak tree on her path to the big house, thinking that Missus Bowen must have been happy that morning as she awaited her son's return home. Then she saw Jacob, the plantation carpenter for the past ten years, standing motionless down near the tide line, facing sunrise over the salt marsh. His thin, wiry arms hung limply by his sides. Callie stumbled down the bank of sand and grass, startling him as he spun to meet her, so that he nearly fell into the shallows.
"You awright, Jacob?" Callie asked.
"Ain me you need fuh aks. You bes check wid yo fren, damn Massa!"
"Jacob!" Callie anxiously looked up the bank toward the mansion looming above the marsh, its windows and encircling verandas providing ample opportunity for Captain Bowen to view his property.
Jacob was not to be stopped: "Wuh wrong wid da man? He wuk dis cotton so haad (hard), he kill we."
Though sympathetic, Callie only said, "I jes know Massa worry bout time fuh git cotton pick."
"Don mek no sense. Wuh Massa know? Him see Franklin en Cato fall out ... Massa lay em down en po water on dey head, den mek em wuk mo. No, Massa ain slow down til Hezikiah draw e las bret (breath)."
His eyes welled with tears and his chest heaved. "Yessuh. Wuk haad fuh Massa. Fuh wha? Fuh nuttin!" Jacob spat over his shoulder toward the big house, more gesture than substance.
"Jacob! You look fuh git whip yosef. I know you too smaat fuh act like fool in de sight uh Massa." His look to her, though respectful, came through watery eyes, a tear tracking down his clenched jaw.
"You know I right, Jacob. Ain gon leh Massa lash on yo ole skin. My haat kyah too much fuh oona. (My heart cares too much for you.)" She grabbed his arm, pulled him, and walked him up the shifting sandbank. "Gi Hezzie respeck dis day fuh way he treat we."
"Look wey him be now, Callie. Look wey him done git!" Jacob stopped walking with Callie as they reached the footpath, pulling back from her urging grasp of his arm. "Res of we ain sho like you, Callie, da nex day gon be awright."
She released his arm and stepped back, her eyes searing through his. "Wha I done been fuh Sunny, BB, Lucas, en you, Jacob! I tek kyah dem Bowen like I been do since I been small chile. I mek sho we git wha we need—wha you say don matta none fuh me." The fire in her eyes masked and stopped the tears that had begun to form, belying her words.
She calmed herself, watching a pelican family of five fly a perfect V formation at treetop level. "Jacob, you know yo fight ain wid me." She paused. "You know wha I laan (learn) in da big house hep all we people roun yuh (here)."
Jacob hugged Callie; he knew he had crossed a few lines, but he never meant to offend. They moved off: Jacob to his carpentry and Callie to her list of tasks.
* * *
Callie was invaluable to Daniel Bowen for many reasons. She had gained the confidence of the Bowen household over a period of years. She provided all cooking services, and despite being just nineteen years old when Mama Ruth passed on four years earlier, Callie took on Mama Ruth's role of managing all domestic slaves working in and around the big house. Ruth, the only mother Callie had ever known, had shared her broad expertise gained through fifty years of enslaved service on Oakheart Plantation. From Ruth, Callie learned that each daily task taught lessons in life, so she was prepared to assume responsibility for "Mama's" duties and did so with grace unexpected from one so young.
Callie's knowledge of cooking extended well beyond recipes and seasonings. She had a knack for growing vegetables, herbs, and roots—talents that came to full realization when the captain allowed her to tend a small garden patch behind the big house. She learned the first signs of dry leaves and thirsty plants, when to pinch back, and how to prune. No book-learning made her an expert—just days of seeing and doing and thriving and suffering with her plants. Her calloused hands and muscled arms more resembled those of field workers than house slaves.
Yet, most times Callie knew that her work conditions were far better than others enslaved on Oakheart Plantation. She worried that some envied her position and believed that she was favored because her skin was of a lighter hue than most. Callie worked hard to get along well with her fellow bondsmen and to get necessary tasks done. She had a cajoling way about her that allowed others to feel good about themselves while doing as she wished.
"At Oakheart," the captain would tell his fellow planters, "less slave workdays are lost than on any other sea island plantation." This was a significant boast as there were more than one hundred plantations in the region. The reason for this acknowledged success was not the captain's stern management, as he led peers to believe, but rather Callie's knowledge of natural remedies. She was always willing to visit with slaves too ill or too injured to work, lifting their spirits while providing herbs and potions to heal their bodies. Her ability to help her fellow bondsmen gave her status on the plantation among both the free and the enslaved.
Callie consulted with Nickles, the plantation overseer, about field workers who were not able to do their tasks. Though his job was to get the most work out of the hands available, he was often persuaded by Callie to allow sufficient time for healing. They both understood that some hurts were not visible. Callie's approach gained the reluctant support of Captain Bowen also, as he saw his boast come true when he considered the quality of slaves' work when nursed back to full health. He reaped the profit from the harvest and boosted his reputation as a planter on the healthy backs of his Oakheart slaves.
Callie had made herself secure in a very insecure position, for she always remembered Mama Ruth's vivid description of Massa. "Gal, don neba fuhgit, Massa be a capn, and dis capn be a mean man. Das all oona need fuh know." Then she went on. "Him tell white man wha fuh do, en speck em fuh jump. Ain nuttin fuh him speck slave jump fas en high en say, 'Yassuh,' fo git back down."
While Callie had no doubt who was in charge, she was more than sure that without her, matters around Oakheart Plantation would not go so well. Callie understood the captain and usually deferred to his demands, but she was puzzled by Julia Bowen, his wife of ten years.
The captain's wife, or Sista Bowen, as Callie and the other African women of the yard called her, was a good enough soul, but had no natural gift for managing slaves. Her innate human kindness did not allow her to give orders without first holding an open discussion on the merits of a given matter. The slaves of the plantation, with the exception of Callie, did not respond well to her questions, as their slave training had not prepared them for such interaction. In ten years as the captain's dutiful wife, she never really settled into her role as "Missus" because she would never give the slaves a direct order.
It was not just her talkative self that puzzled the African women in the big house yard. "God ain gi Sista Bowen no smaats (smarts) bout how fuh fix food!" Mama Ruth used to say. "Nah, she ain know how fuh do nuttin in de cookhouse. We be de one tell she wha fuh do."
Other slaves in the yard would warn Ruth, "Jes wait, you see, someday Sista Bowen gon laan (learn) good how fuh move slave roun." Ruth always resisted the thought, saying, "We bless yuh, cause Sista Bowen ain ebil like some." Ruth said she had come to know the heart of the new mistress of the plantation, and she found it simple and kind.
But, whatever Julia Bowen's plantation status, she was the captain's wife. While she was not threatening in demeanor, inflicting none of the pain of servitude directly, she also seemed oblivious to all the cruelty that surrounded her.
* * *
Each day, Callie parlayed her knowledge into good eating for the Bowens, but the joy she took in being provider was tempered somewhat by her proximity to the life of her master. Though her tasks were on a higher plane than other Oakheart slaves, they still were within the tight confines of slavery. The cookhouse walls made of oyster shells did not limit the scent of shrimp, grits, and bacon cooked in an iron skillet over an open fire. One morning, Captain Bowen followed his nose directly into the peaceful space of Callie's cookhouse.
Some days the master was more oppressive than others with his questions and nags. Had Callie made certain that all tomatoes and sweet potatoes had been cleaned and only the largest retained for the feast? Were the shrimp and crab being pulled from the river in abundance this week? Where was Lucas? Did he know what he had to do before dawn tomorrow? Had the best corn from the summer harvest been saved for the shrimp boil? Was there any bug infestation in the storage shed?
"Callie, you must go check the storage shed. I'm heading that way—I'll go with you."
Callie watched the captain move a few steps down the path, noting, when he turned back to her, that his thin frame slouched to reveal a growing paunch. "Massa Cap'n, you know ain no time dis day for none uh da. Afta my regla tass (tasks), den I go wid Lucas tuh Beaufut fuh spice you like in de swimp boil." Callie, being keenly aware not only of her responsibilities, but also his intentions, managed the moment. She was the only Oakheart slave to call him "Massa Cap'n."
In the corner of her eye, she saw Lucas rounding the big house and heading for the dock. She shouted, "Brudda, we ready fuh row on de risin tide tawd Beaufut?" She hoped in vain that her question would insulate her younger brother from unnecessary, belittling morning instructions by Bowen.
"Come here, boy!" Captain Bowen barked. Lucas continued his pace but turned a right angle to move in the direction of his master. "You know how important it is that my wife's boy gets delivered in one piece today, Lucas?"
"Yassuh, sho do. Big boat ready fuh maaket, Massa."
Lucas, having registered the appropriate level of obsequiousness, was dismissed. "Well, then be off by God."
"Yassuh, Massa. I gwine (going) now, Massa."
Bowen further commanded: "Boy, when you return, you'd best be ready to get right back out on the next ebb tide tomorrow morning, and get back heah by noon with bushels of fresh shrimp. This batch has to be big and good, you know, boy?" His simple domineering ways would have been laughable, were they not intended to be threatening.
Lucas smiled as he turned halfway back, continuing in slower obedience than Captain Bowen wished. "Yassuh. Soon's I git back, mek ready fuh go on mornin tide, Massa. Massa be please wid wha Lucas pull from de crik." And he turned to head back to the dock.
Satisfied, the captain grunted, "Get on with it then. Callie, be sure you get your marketing done on time to catch the outbound tide down the river. I'll see you later about tomorrow night's dinner plans. Y'all be quick and you'll get a generous reward later."
"Yassuh." She threw the answer back over her shoulder, unwilling to further acknowledge his existence. To maintain her composure, she suppressed feelings of disgust rising in her stomach at the thought of his "reward." Callie and Lucas moved quickly down to the dock.CHAPTER 2
Will Hewitt stood in the bow of the southbound steamer, Carolina, seeking a breeze to combat the oppressive heat that had settled over the sea islands. He was returning to South Carolina, his mother's home for the last ten years following her marriage to successful planter and boat builder, Daniel Bowen.
More at peace on water than land, Will thrived at the Naval Academy on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. Summers spent training on the bay provided ample opportunities for Will to hone and demonstrate his seamanship. So, upon receiving word of his mother's illness, he worried both about her and the future of his pending career in the US Navy.
Now that the Southern states had actually seceded from the United States and South Carolina had started the fighting with the bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston, all plans had changed. Will and the other upper class midshipmen had been assigned to the USS Constitution, where he had expected to serve alongside his peers. He felt better about making the trip south after academy officials approved and even encouraged him to go.
The salt-marsh air and tidal currents of these simmering flat islands filled his senses. An all-enveloping moist heat made Will's breathing labored even while he was at rest. Yet the beauty was unsurpassed, with myriad shorebirds in flight and dolphins sharing their kingdom with his vessel.
Excerpted from Swift Currents by David Bruce Grim. Copyright © 2014 David Bruce Grim. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
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