What happens to a gem of great worth as it travels through time? Maybe it becomes worth even more.
The Price of Freedom
In 1803 the Diamond came back to South Africa in the company of Dr. and Mrs. Alfred Pemberton, a wealthy British landowner seeking to find a greater purpose in his life. Along with the good doctor came thousands of his countrymen, eager to grasp the untold riches of Imperialism, a fancy name to cover what Colonialism really was; the systematic rape of someone else’s country. These colonists brought with them greed, guns, and disease and took for themselves all the land they could grasp. Dr. Pemberton brought his daughter, Mary, barely five years old, and a desire to solve the problems of the rampant infectious diseases brought by his countrymen, so that more of them could safely follow along.
The entry of so many British forced the Dutch Boors, who were there first, to move inland in search of more land for their farms. This movement coincided with another movement; that of Shaka, King of the Zulus, who had gathered the Nguni people into a ‘mfecane’, a Holy War of wandering destruction. Although Shaka was assassinated in 1828, his movement continued to grow, and it was inevitable that these two forces would meet. And meet they did, over the small outpost hospital of Dr. Pemberton.
Dr. Pemberton was now in his sixties and tired. His wife, Mildred, had contracted a stubborn fever and was slowly dying. Warned of the impending Zulu raid, Alfred elected to return to England where better medical facilities existed to treat his wife. Mary, now thirty and a doctor in her own right, elected to stay in the country she had grown to love. Distraught at their parting, Mildred forced the Diamond on her daughter in the desperate hope she would come to her senses, wish to return home, and the Diamond would be a source of funds to do so. Mary tossed it into the bottom of her medical bag and promptly forgot about it.
Mary survived the mfecane, hidden by an old, escaped Nubian slave named Sricka (Oh yes, Africa had its slaves, too), who later became Mary’s nurse. The old woman had an incredible, arcane knowledge of jungle plants and their curative powers, which Mary blended with her Western Medicine to great success. As it turned out, Mildred Pemberton died of a disease her daughter Mary could have easily cured.
In 1839, the revolt aboard the slave ship Amistad sent shock waves of conscience around the world, and nations were feeling its pangs over slavery. Some estimates put seven million slaves on the ‘Middle Passage’ to North America alone between 1650 and 1858, when the British finally moved to abolish the practice. It came too late for Sricka’s grandson.
Yet another uprising threatened Mary Pemberton’s hospice in that year. Urging Sricka and the other workers into the bush, Mary gave the Diamond to her, for she had seen her friend of thirty years admiring it on occasion. This time, Mary didn’t survive. She was killed, ironically, by a syphilis-ridden warrior, a disease brought to Africa by the white man. Overwhelmed by sadness, Sricka gave it to her grandson, Aren (meaning ‘eagle’), convinced that it would bring him good fortune, as pretty stones were thought to do. Black slavers captured him the very next day.
Aren survived the ‘Middle Passage’, crammed into the hold of a slave ship like so much cordwood. He survived the ‘Breaking In’ at a West Indies island where cruel men labored to break his spirit. As there is no escape from an island, Aren played along, waiting for his opportunity. It came after his sale in America, as he was being transported to his new owner’s farm. Aren slipped his bonds and was away into the Louisiana woods in a blink of an eye, easily outdistancing his pursuit with his warrior’s strength and gait. But he ran in the wrong direction, and he didn’t know that there was no safety anywhere in the South for a man of color. He slept in a tree that night and awoke to find himself surrounded by dogs and white men with guns. The scars across his broad, muscled back were constant reminders of his new education. This is Aren’s story.
Aren stood, unseen, in the dark doorway of his hut and watched the low, thick fog rise from the damp fields and rivers, hiding the ground like a blanket of white clouds, washing up against the hedgerows like so much foam from a gentle surf. It was his hut, built in the tradition of his people, round, mud-covered and thatched with grass. He refused to enter any building built by his owners, and, because of his value, he was granted this one dispensation. His value was great, not because of the Diamond, which he had kept hidden in various body cavities during his capture, but because of his great strength, tapered muscles rippling beneath his shiny black skin, and his overall good looks. His white owners knew nothing of his great intelligence, would not care if they had, because Aren had but one purpose in their eyes; he was to father a legion of well-muscled workers, valuable, saleable workers. Aren had other plans.
Escape! The thought never left his mind, and he was constantly learning and planning of it. His plans had been somewhat slowed, however, by the recent addition of a new House Slave, Nefertiri, possessed of such beauty as to alter Aren’s single-minded purpose to now include another in his plans. Nefertiri spoke several dialects in addition to flawless English, and she had provided Aren’s only comfort, that of being able to speak with another human being and be understood, for Aren rejected anything from the white devils, including their language. Tiri was highly educated. Tiri was also in love with the large, silent warrior.
Aren shifted his feet and the ever-present iron clank of his leg irons brought him from his musings. As thick as a man’s middle finger, the iron shackles hampered his stride to the width of his shoulders, fine for lifting heavy casks and a stumbling walk, but much too short for a running gait. Aren was no more than a magnificent, hobbled, stud animal awaiting his owner’s use, and that constantly fueled his burning desire to be free.
A movement in the field caught his eye and Aren was surprised to see an odd-looking hat floating on the fog. Obviously the man crouching beneath it didn’t realize it was sticking up through his fog cover. Aren couldn’t fault the man’s carelessness, because who had slept in a tree from which there was no escape? Aren grinned, ruefully, at the thought. The hat reached the hedgerow nearest the slave quarters and disappeared, momentarily, only to appear on the other side, perched on the head of a skinny black man. Escaped? Aren’s heart began to beat rapidly. Grasping and holding his shackles against their noise, he left his hut and crept closer to the building the strange man had entered, pausing near a now-darkened window, listening.
Although Aren refused to speak English he understood quite a bit, and what he learned made him joyous to his very soul. The stranger was called Lucky Jim and he was a Freeman, a freed slave who lived in the North, where such a thing was possible. Lucky Jim spoke convincingly of the freedom for which Aren longed, and the warrior was lost in thought and rapt attention. The Freeman ended his tale by offering to lead anyone who could meet the price to freedom in the North, on something he called an ‘underground railroad’. Aren was not familiar with that phrase, but remembered it, to ask Tiri.
When the little man left, Aren stepped behind him in the darkness and placed a hand upon his shoulder. Lucky Jim almost fainted at the shock, and then smiled as he saw the huge black man. Now it was Aren’s turn to be shocked, for the little man sported a gold tooth, something he had never seen.
“Are you wanting to be free, big man?” Lucky Jim asked, his gold tooth mesmerizing in the moonlight.
Aren struggled with the English he had previously refused to speak. “Me . . . be free?” He asked, haltingly, unsure of his words.
The little man grinned even more now. He was used to conversing with people and their struggling English. “Sure as you know, big man. You got any money? Anything valuable?” He knew damned well slaves didn’t have any of the like, but for freedom, many would steal from their white owners. He waited, his greedy eyes locked on the warrior’s face.
Aren thought about the Diamond. Given to him by his grandmother, the most revered medicine woman of his tribe, the Diamond meant much more to him than mere money. He now realized that it might mean his freedom. As if from thin air, he produced the stone and held it out to Lucky Jim.
The Freeman fairly trembled at the sight of the sparkling Diamond! It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and his greed poured out of him like sweat. With trembling hands he brought a jeweler’s loupe from his pocket and fitted it to his eye. Carefully taking the jewel from the giant’s hand he held it up to the moonlight; it wasn’t the best light but it told Jim what he needed to know. He placed it back in Aren’s hand after a wondering moment. Could he have avoided the big man’s grasp and slipped away? The man was shackled. But if the giant grabbed him, he could break him to pieces with his bare hands. Better to get it later.
Lucky Jim tried to hide his interest. Did the slave have any more of these? “Yeah, that might be enough.”
Aren clutched the stone in his fist. “Two peoples?” He asked.
“You gwan take you wife?” Lucky Jim asked. Perfect, now to find out if the slave had more. He held up two fingers. “Gonna cost you two stones.”
Aren felt his guts twist. The Diamond was not enough to take Tiri, and he would not go without her. He turned to leave.
Lucky Jim, his good sense momentarily overpowering his greed, saw that the stone might be lost to him. “Wait,” he said, grabbing Aren’s arm. He made a big show of thinking it over. “All right, big man,” he finally said. “Two of you.”
Aren smiled and made the Diamond disappear. “When?” He asked.
Lucky Jim felt actual pain at the stone’s disappearance. “‘Morrow night. They’s a clearing t’other side of them trees. Be there before the moon comes up. I’ll bring somethin’ to get them chains off.”
Aren got word to Tiri and now the two of them crouched in the bushes surrounding the designated clearing. After an hour of waiting, Aren bid Tiri to stay hidden while he scouted the area. Tiri, trembling from sheer expectation, could not sit still and ventured a few steps into the clearing to get a better view. She heard a clinking, metallic sound and turned to find herself face-to-face with Mr. Hyde, the hateful, rank-smelling Overseer.
“Well, Darlin’,” Hyde began, “what’re you doin’ out here all by yourself? You ain’t thinking of runnin’ off, now are you?” His greasy smile turned her stomach.
Tiri was frightened to her very soul. On the best of days Hyde wasn’t quite right in his head, but now, here in the waxing moonlight, he was positively evil. There was more than insanity in his eyes.
Tiri considered her words carefully. “Why Mr. Hyde, I’m just taking a little air, a walk in the moonlight, how nice of you to worry about me.”
Hyde wasn’t fooled for a moment. This woman lit a fire within him, a fire barely banked by the fact that she was forbidden. The Massa had big plans for her. But, the Massa wasn’t here now, and who was to say what happened to poor Tiri? He stretched his arm for the frightened girl.
A length of chain, the shackles removed from Aren’s feet by Lucky Jim, whipped through the air and settled around Hyde’s neck and pulled tight; Hyde was lifted from his feet, struggling, gasping for air. Minutes later, Hyde’s lifeless body dropped to the ground. Aren spread his arms and Tiri rushed into them. Come what may, there was no turning back now.
The following days of travel to the Ohio Valley were hard and treacherous, but nothing compared to the travails of slavery. Luck Jim made good on his promise and was duly given the Diamond, the price of freedom. Aren and Tiri made a new life in the North and had a son and a daughter. In May of 1963, Aren, ever conscious of Freedom’s value, joined the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, under command of Col. Robert G. Shaw, the first all black (except for Shaw) militia in the Civil War. He died, valiantly, as a warrior should, at the Battle of Olustee, one of the bloodiest battles of the War. His great-great-great-great granddaughter would refuse to move to the back of a bus in 1958, ushering in a new Fight for Freedom.
The Diamond? Lucky Jim went back South to New Orleans, ready to start a new Freedom Train. Apparently, he got drunk and talked too much because his body was found, with empty pockets, behind a bar in the French Quarter. The Diamond and his gold tooth were never found, at least not yet.
© 2003 by S.J. Beres