Fantastic Mars -12- Slaves of Mars

If I should die before I wake...


Fantastic Mars -12-
Slaves of Mars

by Erin Halfelven

They came from the same direction we had come from, more of the huge green things than I could count. Gunshots banged out from our side, but they had firearms, too, monstrous pistols like the one we had found for Trike.

I was facing the wrong way to see how our guys were doing and I could not move. The voice in my head had told me not to, and I had to obey!

“Who are you?” I tried to ask mentally, since I could not even move my mouth to ask out loud.

“Don’t ask questions,” said the voice. “Tell me what is happening there.”

“Greenies attacking,” I said. I didn’t want to give more info than I was getting so I kept my answers short.

Above me, I could see Trike firing back at the attackers, using his own big greenie weapon. He had an expression that seemed a mix of fierce anger and worried concentration. Back in our world, Trike had been the gentlest of men.

In the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Hote banging away with his revolvers, and I could hear the heavier boom of Seejay’s repeater rifle. They were probably holding the big scatterguns in reserve until the enemy got closer.

The only cover in the hallway were the doorways of rooms and Trike retreated toward one. I lay flat on the floor of the hall and Dolly beside me while leaden horror flew overhead.

“Are you dead?” Dolly asked but I couldn’t answer. “The evil cunt has fainted,” she snarled.

Hey! I tried to protest, but I couldn’t even grunt.

“Are you in danger?” the voice in my head asked.

I didn’t answer him either; he hadn’t phrased it as a command.

“Tell me if you are in danger of being captured by the green Martians,” he ordered.

“Yes,” I said. From the noise, the giant greenies outnumbered us, maybe by a lot.

“Stop breathing,” he said.

“I’ll die!” I mentally protested.

“You’re just going to play dead to fool them. You’ve done it before.” The voice explained. “Now stop your heart.”

The noise I never notice, the sound of my own heart beating faded away. My vision faded with it. Was I dead or only playing at it? My hearing faded too, gunshots sounding like muffled hand claps.

Something touched my face, and a voice in Dolly’s tones murmured, “She is dead, dead, dead… dead.”

Exceedingly dead, I thought. She probably hadn’t kept repeating it; it just echoed in the emptiness of my mind because I felt even thought beginning to slip away. If I stopped thinking, would I cease to be?

Had the voice given me another order? I couldn’t tell. Gluey darkness swallowed my conscious self, and even dreams don’t exist when you’re dead.

* * *

I spent some time in a place where the existence of thought and memory were only hypothetical. It wasn’t a dream; dreams have more substance and less reality.

After a time in that void, I wandered through empty halls that resembled the Martian ruins where I had already died twice. The ceilings vaulted above me, built for giants who were dead many times over. Doorways opened into darkness, thick as the drapes at the back of a theatrical stage, silent as buried coffins.

I had no sense of owning hands, feet, a body, not even eyes. I was just a two-dimensional point of view drifting through metaphorical corridors. Memory had a short circuit, I didn’t know how I had come to be in that place, and I didn’t even wonder about it. But when I heard what sounded like voices, I increased my imaginary speed and hurried my immaterial soul toward the sound.

* * *

I remembered being very small when the war started. “That man” got elected, and when he moved into the White House, riots happened all across the country. I heard only vague noises about this, and being a child, I didn’t understand much of what I heard.

My nanny, Aunt Elna, quickly moved me away from any adult discussion of such troubles and I played and laughed with my brothers and the other children of the farm without worry or anxiety like any other little girl.

My brothers were the chief troublemakers in my life at any rate. Rafe and Jamie were the closest to my age, and they were hellions. They frequently told me how ugly I was with my red hair, freckles, and mud-color eyes but Aunt Elna assured me that they were lying and that I was much prettier than any boy.

The war went on, and when fighting seemed likely to come close to our farm west of Hagerstown, Maryland, we children were sent south along with most of the family slaves, to the plantation of my mother’s aunt and uncle, Tobias and Genevieve Carter in Virginia.

My name was Joanne Evelyn Elizabeth Maugh, commonly called Joanie. My family was descended from Scottish earls and distantly related to the Stewarts who had been kings of England and Scotland before being displaced by German George. In Maryland, we had been Catholics, but now in Virginia, we became Episcopal, something that caused much anguish to my mother who did not see why we could not import a proper Catholic priest into the area.

Another discussion that nearly caused some fights was how to say Maugh. Father and my elder sister Bellamy held out for a traditional Scottish sound of something like Maowkh while the Virginians insisted it should be said Mo with a long oh sound for a simple ending. Others said Maow or even something like Moff or Maowf. Most of the slaves and farmhands said it as Maw and so did I since I was so often left in the care of Aunt Elna.

I loved that woman. She had light skin for a Negro, the same color as my eyes. I was told, while her eyes and hair were the color of an old penny. She always had a smile for me and often a treat in one of her many pockets. A trifle, like as not, sticky molasses cooked almost hard and wrapped in paper that stuck to it but could be eaten, too, and had a flavor like sour dust that made the candy even sweeter.

Aunt Elna held me close when I was frightened or confused, stroking my hair and murmuring to me. The words didn’t matter, but I heard my name, Joanie, repeated with assurances that all was fine or would be fine. I always believed Aunt Elna because I knew she loved me, too. She smelled of spice and love.

Things were going bad in the war. My father, who I had seldom seen anyway, went back to Maryland and never returned. My mother became more distant despite remaining nearby. Even when she was with me, she spoke to someone else, often someone I could not see. I began to stay away from her because she frightened me.

One day, I woke up feeling terrible. Many of the rest of the people at the farmhouse had already been sick, some for days. I vomited and had diarrhea again and again. After a time, I began to feel better. Aunt Elna nursed me with fruit juice she boiled and added salt to. I recovered, but several others did not.

I never saw my mother, my sister Bellamy, or my Aunt Genevieve again. Aunt Elna had had a daughter of her own, Betty, a little older than myself but I never saw Betty again either. Most of the men who worked the fields had died, too, and others had run off. Everyone seemed sadder.

Except Uncle Tobias became angry all the time. Aunt Elna and I began staying out of the big house. I even slept with her in the building reserved for the house slaves. “Are you my mother now?” I asked her. She wept and held me close. Instead of “Nana,” I started calling her “Mam,” like the black children called their mothers.

Soldiers came. Some of them dressed in gray or green but most in the mismatched clothes everyone else wore, dominated by the tan created by homemade dyes. Uncle Tobias argued with a tall bearded man wearing gray with white and green facings on his coat. Another soldier struck Uncle Tobias to the ground with his rifle butt, and the argument seemed over.

Mammy Elna and I hid in the slave quarters. The men in gray moved into the big house and large guns, as big as any wagon, were brought and dug in behind little hills the men built. Uncle Tobias moved into the stillhouse and even took over doing the brewing and stilling since the old slave who had done that before had died of the fever, it was said. He drank a lot of what he stilled his ownself, too.

I stayed out of sight of the soldiers as much as I could. “Your name is Betty, now,” Mam told me. And she rubbed me all over with some of the homemade dye to make my skin and hair as brown as her own. “If they was to know you was white, they would take you away,” she said. Afterwards, I smelled like vinegar, but I thought it was fun to be as dark as my playmates and now I did not have to hide when the soldiers were about.

Mam and I moved back into the big house, Mam to do cooking and cleaning for the officers. In particular for one called Colonel Neary who would pinch and slap her when she got near him but not as if he were angry. It seemed like some sort of game I did not understand, but I didn’t like it. I tried to kick him in the shins when he slapped her on the thigh hard enough to sound like a gunshot.

“Doan you be hittin' my Mam!” I told him while he held me away from himself with a hand on top of my head. He laughed and joked with Mam and she laughed too but it sounded worried. That night and after, Mam slept in Colonel Neary’s bed and I slept on a pallet in the same room. I covered my ears when they made noises long after midnight.

Mam had to use the dye on my skin about once a week. It tended to wear off. I thought it was nice to be such an even brown color all over. You could hardly tell that I had freckles.

Uncle Tobias when he had been drinking called me over to him and asked my name. The smell of sourmash and woodsmoke clung to him like a coat.

“Betty,” I said.

“Is Mammy Elna your mam?” he asked. His breath had the sharper smell of whiskey, and he sounded puzzled.

I said yes, but he said I must say, “Yassuh.”

“Don’t you be trying to talk like a white child, Betty. Something terrible might happen to you,” he warned.

I promised I would not, and from then on, I tried to sound like all the other black and brown children, which wasn’t too hard.

But something terrible did happen. Colonel Neary decided that he wanted all the slaves on the plantation to be branded to prevent any more runaways. All would be marked on the back of the left shoulder to show that we belonged to the Virginia Artillery and could be brought back for a reward. Uncle Tobias objected that we belonged to him, so Colonel Neary arranged to buy us for the Army.

One of the Sergeants made two brands shaped like the battalion’s mark. Two other men heated the irons in a fire near the well. They made us all line up, all of the people with dark skin, including me. Mostly old men, women and children, most young blacks having already run off or been taken by the Army for labor elsewhere. Uncle Tobias watched with a bottle in his hand, taking a drink whenever anyone screamed.

It was a bad thing because it hurt like the very devil, but it was soon over, and Mam doctored it so that it hardly hurt at all. In a few weeks, it made a scar that I could feel as a lump under my fingers. I couldn’t see it back there, but I didn’t have any letters so I would not know what it said anyway. Mam stopped dyeing my skin since the brand proved I was a black child even if with my red hair and pale skin I looked white.

Besides, Colonel Neary had been killed along with several other men when a gun blew up the day after the branding. The new colonel did not want us in the house since he had brought his wife and baby son with him. So Mam and I were living in the slave house again, and that’s when Uncle Tobias became Uncle Toby because he said so. He was oft times more pleasant to be around when he was drinking than when he was not.

Eventually, the war ended, and our side had won, so we did not have to change the way we lived. The Army sold all of us back to Uncle Toby, and they dug up all the guns and left. We could go back to farming, and living civilized Uncle Toby said. He moved Mam and me back into the big house, and he slept with Mam now, and I slept with the other girls in another room.

Life was good. We all had enough to eat, and Mam had a new baby, almost as light-colored as me. Uncle Toby named him Hiram and told me to take care of him because he was my little brother but I did it because I loved Mam and Hiram and Uncle Toby too.

Sometimes Uncle Toby was gone for days. Mam said he had to take care of the farm up in Maryland as well, but he always came back, and we would have ham and apples and real wheaten bread when he did.

Sometimes people who visited the farm would comment on my color, but Mam would show them the mark on my shoulder from when we all belonged to the Army and then, often as not, they would want to buy me. I got scared the first few times this happened but Uncle Toby would not sell for any price, and I came to be proud of my looks and the amount of money offered for me. “She really is my niece,” he would say, “Elna is her mother, but her father was my wife’s brother.”

Mam made me promise I would not tell the other girls how much I was worth to some white men. “Betty,” she said, “it ain’t no virtue of your own they want to buy so don’t go making anyone jealous over foolishness.”

“I won’t, Mam,” I promised. But Uncle Toby seemed tickled to get the other men to bid on me and then tell them no, so it was hard not to feel pleased sometimes.

Hiram and I were sleeping out of doors one summer night. He was big enough to be talking and asking lots of questions, and I was tall enough that I had started wondering why boys my age no longer seemed so awful. He pointed up in the sky and asked, “Betty, why are some stars red?”

I looked and saw a red star, red as the sun at sunset, and I knew its name.

I said it aloud, “Mars.”

* * *

And just like that, I wasn’t dead anymore.

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