She chose me.
I was working in the plantation. Swinging my hoe time and time again to the tuneless song being whistled by the older men. It’s something we do to make the job less tedious. It’s all routine. Wake up, work on the huge plantation, eat, sleep, doing the same thing often time and time again, sometimes I think the songs are the only thing helping us hold on to our sanity.
That day was a day like any other, sunbeams mercilessly piercing the flimsy sheets that passed for curtains in the worker’s hovel. Someone nudged me awake. That push meant sleep time was over. Get up, it said. You want to sleep the whole day long, then be ready to sleep on an empty stomach. No meals till the afternoon, and then the slop shovelled into our bowls was barely enough, and could only be gotten with a worker’s token, and worker’s tokens were shared only to workers found working and active on the plantation.
The only reason most of us worked with Master was because he was fair with us. He may not have cared much for our feeding, but he paid well and on time. Work in the plantation would give you enough to buy a house and farm of your own in six years if you worked hard and steady, saved well and kept your head down.
This is more, much more than other masters were willing to offer, so we flocked to him and ignored the terrible food. Once every week, he transferred the most hardworking workers to the orchard on the other side of the vast compound. fruits grew in abundance there and master had a spoken rule. whichever fruit fell to the ground, which ever fruit didn’t make the perfect cut, belonged to the workers who worked that day in the orchard. Master only sold the best and for this his fruits were of great value in the market. Sometimes workers had entire baskets to themselves. can you believe that? Entire baskets! All yours to share with your brothers and sisters who worked with you that day. Fruits were also given out to friends and family. With the slop, it wasn’t a feast, but it was adequate.
It was the dream of every worker to have a day in the orchard.
And that was where I met her.
In my third year, I was picked to work in the orchard. My joy knew no bounds. Quickly I took my equipment and left to the other side. Orchard workers woke earlier than the plantation workers, but their job was far easier. Just pluck them fruits. Wash them. Put them in baskets according to their type. Separate the perfect from the imperfect. How hard could it be?
And so that day I was busy plucking and sorting, with my shirt tied on my head, bare-chested because of the heat when someone tapped me.
I turned to see who it was and had a cup of water thrust into my hands.
“Thank you miss.” I drank it quickly before she could change her mind. Clean cool water was rare when you worked. You waited till the end of the day to slake your thirst.
That she had clean water, a frilly hat on and a sundress marked her as one of the nobility. As such, she was none of my business, so I turned back to plucking and sorting.
“What’s your name?”
“Miss?” I was surprised. No one cared about workers.
“Your name. What is it?”
“Tunde.” I have no last name. Mother never bothered with one. Last names were not important, and what was not important could easily be overlooked where I came from.
“Tunde. Its a beautiful name. I’d like a friend named Tunde.” See the problem with nobility is this. They know nothing. Us workers, when we work, we shut up.
We don’t talk. At most we whistle. Talking takes energy. Energy that would otherwise be used up for other important stuff- like working. Talking was not important.
“Hmph.” More plucking and sorting. I pick the tune been whistled by the other workers. Nothing else was said that day, but next week I was again picked to go to the orchard. You must understand, this never happens. For us, it’s like seeing the moon turn blue and start tap dancing. Even our taskmaster seemed surprised when he read my name from the list.
But I’ve never questioned goodluck so I went. And she came again that afternoon, with a sandwich for me and a cup of juice. It was nobleman food and I had never tasted it. I ate it anyway.
Then she sat and watched me work. All day.
When the day was over, she pulled me aside and pressed something into my palm. Three worker’s tokens. Momma had gone, but my little brother fed well that day. He was the reason I worked.
Me and him both, we were going to get our own farm and live well. We almost had what we needed. A year more and we would be free. Master would sell us the land himself and provide us food, wood and livestock enough for a small start. What you made out of it was left to the strength of your shoulders.
She gave me little gifts like that. Food quickly eaten or hidden, extra tokens to be used when no one would notice.
I collected them. To do otherwise would be rude. Overtime things… changed. I spent time talking with her. Yet no one said anything. I later knew it was because she was the Master’s daughter. But then I was in too deep.
Then one day she took my hand and took me away from the orchard. I was grateful for the respite from work, but I was scared. Master was generous, yes, but he was also strict. Workers knew better than to annoy him by not working.
She pulled me to a tangerine grove and pushed me to rest on it.
“Tunde. I have something to tell you.”
“Miss? You could have told me in the orchard. If master catches me I’m dead-”
“Tunde, I like you.”
“Miss?” And then she did the unthinkable. She leaned in and kissed me. “Call me Jessica.”
That was 3 years ago.
In those 3 years, I got my farm, me and my brother moved in and even got an education. I was truly happy. And then Gaju happened, and I lost her. And now we’re here, back in the orchard where it all began-
I take another step towards her. I can smell the sweet decay of freshly fallen hibiscus flowers and the slight tang carried by overripe tangerines.
I would run into her soft honey brown arms if I could but the cold detachment she exudes is the most brutal form of restraint. Another resistant step, carefully set on dead leaves, so gently the crackle is but a whisper, set like a hunter who fears the deer fleeing. But yet I’m no hunter, no, I’m the deer, and cupid’s lead arrow my bane.
She still says nothing, sitting in her bright blue sundress. Her eyes reflect nothing. She who once smiled in my presence, watches my approach the way a lion would watch a hyena. Come closer if you dare.
Finally I am almost within arm’s reach. And with brilliant beams of sunlight sketching patterns on my bare chest I fall to my knees in supplication, like a pagan pilgrim before an aloof, haughty goddess.
“Jessica? Forgive me?”