This short story uses the analogy of a family to illustrate a painful part of our country’s past. It is the hope of the author to help people understand the issues seen from from several other perspectives. Through this understanding, it is the author’s hope that a bridge can be forged that will enable Americans to more fully appreciate the complexities that are at work in our current world, especially the divides concerning race, power, and entitlement. It is meant to heal our relationships as a people, acknowledge the damage done, and expose the true enemies…..evil, greed, cruelty, and indifference enacted by humans to one another.
Let me tell you a story that reaches its wicked hand from the grave even still…..
It begins with a man and his family. We’ll call the man Antoine. Now Antoine had a farm that was growing larger and larger every year; his wife, Claire, and their three children helped to work the land. The three children were Samuel, the oldest, then Honey, and Jaru. Every day the family awoke early, ate a good breakfast cooked by Claire, and got to work feeding the animals, tending the crops, and taking care of Antoine’s vast property. Antoine counted on his children to work hard, and in fact, wanted more children so that he could bring in even more profit through their hard work. Jaru, the last child Claire had borne, was now 8 years old, and knowing he had done what was necessary to impregnate his wife, Antonio was confused by the fact that she bore no additional offspring. He needed a workforce to match his vision.
Finally, realizing that Claire was barren, Antoine’s greed hatched an evil plan. He would steal a child—No, he would steal two children. And so he took a long journey to another land and returned with two young children. He lied to Claire and his other children, by telling them he had found the children wandering alone—dirty, distraught, and starving, and he had saved them from certain death. They seemed to be little older than toddlers, possibly 3 and 4 years old and spoke a different language. Antoine named them Antoinette and John. The little children cried themselves to sleep every night calling for their mama and papa…pining for the sounds and smells of their distant home. Claire and her son, Samuel, treated the little ones kindly and wanted to comfort them, but could not understand them. There was little they could do except rock and speak softly to them, hoping they understood someone cared for them, lost and alone as they were. Claire and Samuel snuck into their quarters after Antoine had drunk himself into a stupor. He forbade his family from giving them even the slightest creature comforts. Even though they did not condone the treatment of Antoinette and John, there was no going against their husband and father. They would be severely punished if they did so.
As Antoinette and John grew, they also grew to understand the unspoken rules of the house—do what Antoine asked without question or pay the painful consequences.
While Samuel, Honey, and Jaru went to school during the day, Antoinette and John worked on the farm. Samuel’s guilt followed him to school rather than the children. He felt tormented at school thinking about Antoinette and John at home working without rest while he was here learning and advancing his knowledge. His brother and sister on the other hand were happy that they had a break from the hard work, were calloused to the injustice. They didn’t seem to care about anyone but themselves and were, in fact, jealous of the attention the two received from their mother.
Claire would help the two youngest with their chores and give them lessons during the day in creative ways—math when accounting for the herds of animals, reading/writing when making lists, reading the bible, etc. One day Antoine overheard one of the lessons and flew into a rage. He stomped on and crushed the chalk and small flint board until it was dust under his feet. He quashed Claire’s efforts to educate the children by forbidding her to teach them “anything they don’t need to know to do my work”. And thus, having felt the wrath of Antoine many times before, and praying to avoid it, Claire distanced herself from the babies—no more lessons…in fact, to protect herself (and them), she no longer held them, rocked them, or gave them lessons. She treated them with the coldness of a boarded up heart…one that had been torn to shreds one too many times. Anything else would only lead to pain for everyone…To ensure that the connection was severed, Antoine moved the children out of the house and made them sleep in the barn with the animals.
Samuel grew increasingly despondent about the situation with Antoinette and John, who he considered his younger siblings. With his maturity as the oldest and his loving and compassionate heart, he knew that Antoine, his father, was truly evil. Additionally, he was shocked at the callousness of his siblings, Honey and Jaru, and the coldness of his mother, though he understood very well why she withdrew her heart. His own heart, though battered and bruised, still beat with love for the two little orphans. He smuggled food, school supplies and books to the two to ease his conscience…for he could have done more. In his own way, he was also selfish, and didn’t wish to suffer the consequences that would rain down if his father were to find out. So he did what he could when he could, knowing it wasn’t enough, but also knowing, if he did more, he probably wouldn’t be around to help at all.
With the farm continuing to expand, Antoine hired a man to do the many menial chores he could not keep up with, and that the children were not strong enough to do. Of course, the new man was not formally educated and had no experience at anything other than manual labor. Antoine was calculating enough to know that a man with more ambition would leave him too soon, so he belittled him and berated him until Charles believed that this was the best he could do in life. Nevertheless, Charles was a hard working young man and was good to Antoinette and John. He taught them what little he knew in hushed whispers in the dark.
The kidnapped children, now 9 and 10 years old, were always tired and hungry…….hungry for rest, for food, for education, for respect, for attention, for acknowledgement of the many wrongs done to them. It would not come. And so, over the years…..the hunger turned to anger, hatred, resentment…venom. They hated Antoine for his cruelty, Samuel for not doing more, Claire, Honey and Jaru for their indifference. The only person they trusted and felt affinity for was Charles, the young laborer. After all, they had a lot in common with him. They felt a kinship in the exploitation and injustice that they shared. Sharing it seemed to ease the burden.
As the two turned into teenagers, Antoine decided they could feed themselves, yet he punished them when they were caught eating any of the livestock or crops. They soon began scavenging, taking only the parts left after the family had eaten what they wanted. Whatever was left after butchering a cow or pig—the intestines, the ears, the feet…. they would gladly eat because they were starving. They ventured out to the forest and found green plants that were edible. Surprisingly, they never thought of running off—first of all because they were so weak from being overworked and starved—and also because they were afraid something worse may be in store for them past the known borders. The unknown was more frightening than the known. They managed to survive….there was not time for leisure, for enjoyment, for reading or learning, or even love…though they were bonded through the daily misery, they only sought to survive……this didn’t always leave room for concern for another. Suffering has a way of distancing a person from others…all energy is devoted for self.
Winter came, and it was difficult to find food and keep warm in the barn. John started taking things from the house out of need—a warm blanket, a bag of oatmeal. Hoping Antoine wouldn’t discover the missing items, the three shivered under the blanket and sought warmth from one another. Charles and Antoinette found a small bit of heaven in the pleasures of their bodies coming together and forgot, for a moment, the misery of their existence.
When Antoine found his missing items in the barn, he accused Charles of stealing them. Charles tried to explain that they were starving in the bitterly cold barn, but Antoine’s ears did not lead to a place of empathy, because there was no such place. For the crime of surviving, Antoine brutally beat Charles and then through clenched teeth yelled for him to “GET!”, pointing savagely. Antoine threatened to call the law if he were to see him on his property again. “And if they don’t get here in a hurry, I will kill you myself!”
Antoinette gave birth to her baby later that night—alone. A baby boy ….fatherless, cold, and with little prospect in the world, save the drudgery of being worked like an animal until death. On the other hand, Antoine was thrilled; another worker had arrived.
Samuel watched all of this transpire in horror. What could he do? How could he intervene? He decided he could live under the malignant shadow of his father no longer and left home. He searched for and found Charles, welcoming him into his home. He told Charles about the new baby, named Amos. Charles, being a hopeful soul, went back to the farm and told Antoine that he had come for Antoinette and Amos. A low maniacal laugh emerged from Antoine’s mouth. He looked toward the ground and shook his head back and forth as he laughed. After an uneasy minute, he lifted his head. His face had turned from red to crimson and seemed to pulse with blood. Spittle flew from his mouth as he raged on for some minutes about the certainty that Charles was a deadman walking and that “his” (Antoine’s) property would be staying right here. As he continued spewing hate, his body unexpectedly jerked, his right hand coming up involuntary to claw at his chest while his left did a macabre dance as a bid for help. Everyone gathered round….simply staring at the strangely fitting scene. Suddenly, yet seemingly in slow motion, he fell face forward—his body landed on the front porch like a felled tree in the forest.
Claire ran onto the porch followed by Honey and Jaru. The spectators stood for what seemed like hours….no one spoke.
Claire felt a deep sense of peace; the living, breathing demon in her life had been reduced to a heap of benign flesh.
Honey quickly inhaled and her hand went to her neck as she fully realized the implications…….life as she knew it was over. How would she afford the luxurious lifestyle her father had provided for her?…….. in her mind, visions of ornately furnished rooms, the latest fashion of gowns, the trappings she was used to….all numbly fading.
After swiftly recovering from the shock, Jaru started barking orders, this opportunity for power clearly recognized and ruthlessly seized. Claire, reviling at the rebirth of evil in her youngest son Jaru, followed Charles to the barn…..
Upon seeing Claire, John jarringly remembered the pain of her rejection when he was a young boy, believed in her betrayal, and thus, filled with venom, he violently barred Claire from entering—threatening to kill her. Samuel, who had come to help Charles collect Antoinette and the baby, overhears John’s threats to his mother. He then sees John shove his mother to the ground. A son’s love for his mother reaches for his ever ready pistol and without a second thought, he shoots John dead. Claire’s screams of anguish echo across the fields ceasing only with the setting sun. As she watches the beloved child, John, breathe his last, she also sees her own beloved son, Samuel, reduced to a murderer…a mere mortal man driven to act out of fear.
Claire rocks and moans in the heartache of loss, “If only we could have spoken our truths to one another, peered through one another’s eyes, all would have been clear…..”
The buckboard jostled its passengers as it deiberately wended down the two ruts in the grass that served as the road. Charles held tightly to Antoinette and Amos as they journeyed with Claire and Samuel gently into the inky darkness of night…..all quietly mourning the tragedy that evil had wrought.
And so we come to the end of this tragic story. Have you guessed what historical evil this allegory illustrates?
Who are you in this story?
Antoine? You believe people and animals are objects to be used?
Claire? You want to help, but you are not willing to feel the feelings of guilt and shame, learn a new truth or be inconvenienced by it?
Jaru? You’ll vote, do business, treat others in whatever way profits you and protects your assets, regardless of the morality of such practices…?
Honey? You can’t be bothered with the questions of who your actions may harm? ….subjugation of others, plastic bags, single use straws, dirty fuel, slave labor, blood diamonds, farm corporation’s inhumane treatment of animals, harmful pesticides, recycling is too much work…who cares, over-fishing, destructive harvesting such as palm oil destroying the orangutan’s habitat, etc. etc., etc. Who cares as long as I have my nails, my furs, my clothes, my jewelry, my scrumptious food….
Samuel? You have compassion for the suffering of others and want to help, but you don’t always know what to do? Fear guides you?
Charles? Held down by a legacy of helplessness, unfair practices, and brutality, yet you see the true enemy and still have hope for a better future?
John? Held down by the same legacy, but embittered, frustrated, and hopeless that a better future can ever exist? Violence is the answer, and even if it’s not, it is a balm to a gaping wound…
Antoinette? Helplessly moving through your life like a pinball with no real sense of who you are, where you’d like to end up, and how powerful you really are? You are following in the footsteps of those that have come before you, doing what they’ve always done even if it has never worked?….(when you know better, you do better…the excuses are getting weaker)
Are you Amos? A young victim of the cultural legacy left by our ancestors…will you be able to break the cycle of payback, “tit for tat” or “an eye for an eye”? Remember, the last one leaves everybody blind (MLK)…..Will you be able to think for yourself? To drown out the voices of the past whispering hate and defeat in your ear? This man is not your brother…this man attacked your grandpa, aunt, sister. This man whipped your grandma, your son, your uncle. Yes, a man did…but not this man.
Let us weep together for the past because we are one in our humanity. Let us ensure that That time has passed…come out of the shadows…see your brother, your sister in a new light…the light of truth. Yes, evil is still afoot….we see it in the cruel, inhumane actions of people. Let us not go looking for evil though, because we may find it in the error of our pre-judge-ment or prejudice against one who is innocent of any personal wrongdoing….
The story does not end with “….and they lived happily ever after…”
Do you think it is possible? Is there hope for our country to live peacefully ever after? Maybe…..if we can let go of the fear, scars, and pain of our collective past.
…..peer through another’s eyes?
….understand another’s perspective? ……treat others with compassion? …..help others in need?
……realize that to help others in need does not diminish your worthiness or importance?
…..recognize that some groups of people have privileges that others have been denied. Does recognizing these slights and trying to provide the same to said groups, take something away from you?
…..deal with the uncomfortable feelings of your identity group’s role in the past?
……..treat others the way you want to be treated?
……be part of the solution, not the problem?
…..not make blanket judgments about others, rather discover each person based upon your interactions with that person?
….stop living in the past?
…..stop blaming the innocent?
…… teach your children a new way?
…….realize evil people are to blame, not people with a certain skin color or particular physical features?
In my humble opinion, the slavery of colonial America was a moment in history that provided a cover for evil people to be themselves (evil) under the legal guise of commerce. Has that system really ever been dismantled? What is different about this revolution? I hope and pray that it is this: we recognize that we, the people, are not enemies…we never have been. We have all been puppets in a corrupt and shameless system that is desperate to maintain the status quo….
June Carlysle (pseudonym for Lori Wells)