Go Down (Moses)
Jefferson felt his whole body quivering as he approached the small hut where Miss Carrie lived, apart from the house, but not quite among the slave quarters. His tutor of many years was dying--and out of all her charges, she had asked for him by name.
The stars twinkled and a warm summer wind blew as he traced the long path down to her house. Jefferson stuffed one hand into his trouser pockets and knocked on the door with the other. Mariah, Miss Carrie’s daughter, answered the door. Tears glistened on her dark cheeks. Jefferson felt his own throat constrict; even though it was only his governess dying, the woman had practically raised him--in addition, it seemed, to raising her own children in a separate life. There were times when Jefferson, in seeing so much of Miss Carrie alone with her children, and calling her “Miss”, forgot that she was actually a “Mrs.”--given the fact that he could never quite recall seeing a “Mister” around her house or her family.
Mariah said nothing, only ducked her head and pointed to the doorway at the back of the house. Jefferson moved through and stopped at the threshold of the bedroom.
Miss Carrie laid upon the rough-hewn bed, covered only by a patchwork quilt. She had her eyes closed when Jefferson first saw her, but she opened them at the sound of his footsteps.
Jefferson felt a small twist in his stomach to hear her call him “son,” but he reasoned that the “Jeffer” part must have gotten lost in the hoarse whisper. She lifted her hand, and he moved in and stood beside her bed to take it. His throat had gotten so tight, he couldn’t speak even if he wanted to--and right now, he had nothing to say.
“You came,” Miss Carrie said, her dark hand wrinkled and shriveled like the sweet dried dates in the cookies she liked to make.
It took a great deal of effort to form the words. “You called for me.”
“Yes--” Miss Carrie broke off into a coughing fit that nearly jerked her upright. When she spoke again, her voice was a bit stronger. “I have something I want to tell you before I die. I should… should have told you sooner.”
Jefferson pressed his lips together; the longer she drew this out, the more difficult it would be for him to rein in his emotions. “Well?” he prompted, a bit more gruffly than he intended. “What is it?”
Miss Carrie’s eyes slid to the side. “There, in my desk. Second drawer from the bottom on the left.”
Jefferson moved to the side of the room, where stood an old roll-top desk, with many drawers no bigger than the card-catalog files at the library. He counted to find the space she indicated, and pulled on the drawer. It had evidently been so long out of use that for a moment, it did not move, but with a loud snap, it came free. Jefferson reached in and removed the contents.
“It’s a paper,” he remarked to Miss Carrie. It looked fairly old.
“Bring it to me,” she said.
Jefferson returned to her bedside. Miss Carrie took the folded paper, but she didn’t open it immediately. “Jefferson, I have a confession to make,” she said slowly. “I have lied to you.”
Miss Carrie? Lie? He shook his head. “Hush now; I have never known you to withhold the absolute truth in even the simplest of circumstances.”
“But I have withheld the truth! I have a secret,” she rasped, “one that I’ve been keeping from you your entire life.”
Only one mystery had ever lasted that long. And now, at the moment of truth, a sense of dread washed over him, such that he almost did not want to hear her expose it. He blinked at his former governess. “You know who my mother is?” he guessed.
When she nodded, Jefferson gestured to the paper in her hands. “And you’ve written it on that paper?”
“Yes,” said Miss Carrie. She opened the paper and handed it to Jefferson. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
Jefferson’s hands trembled as he took the paper and read the weathered, untrained script. He imagined the hand struggling to form each letter of the message:
This is to sa that Jefferson Edward Morris is my chile an I wish him evry hapines an I giv all rites an raising of the chile to the care of whoever can raise him, sinse I cant, an I do sware nevr to seek him out warevr he ma be. If I die an he livs, I wish this note be giv to him. I do so sware this is the God-onest truth, so help me Jesus. Sined, Caroline Rebeca Morris
The struggling lines blurred, and it seemed the whole world tilted around him. Jefferson wasn’t aware of his own movements as his legs gave way and he collapsed into a sitting position on the end of the bed.
“No…” He stared at the dark hand, which made his mostly-fair skin look even paler by contrast.
“Yes,” Carrie’s voice came soft and cracked. “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner. ”
“I--” What could he say? Jefferson’s mind seemed to melt inside his head. He stared at the woman, who had only seemed a regular part of the household staff at the Winthrop plantation. “You are my mother.”
The words he had wanted his whole life to say, and now he was speaking to a dying woman, the last person in the world he expected to be so connected. “But--”
A small smiled lifted the corners of Miss Carrie’s eyes. “Why do we look so different, if I’m your mother?” She patted his pale hand with her dark one. “It was the provision of God that you took after your father.”Father… Morris… Jefferson suddenly recalled the account in the newspapers of the overseer that was caught using his position to try and help the slaves under his supervision escape. His employers had dragged him to court, but the man had simply vanished one night and nobody ever heard from him again. His name had been Brian Morris.