Before the morning sun

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By Moyo Esther

The night seemed to stretch for hours as Vincent turned and rolled around the messy floor, his back aching from where he laid with other slaves of his category. He had been assigned as Valet and though he knew nothing of his responsibilities, he was glad he was not amongst those assigned to plantations. He tugged at the dark suit he wore, now dirtied and torn from the days of being shoved about. He had borrowed it from a friend on his way to seek employment just a day before the Wazobians attacked them. The suit was slightly too big as well as the waistcoat and breeches it came with, but was still not enough to shield him from the chill of the winter that filled the threadbare ensemble.

He turned in his rest, attempting to find a better position in the cramped space but ending with hitting the leg of his bed mate or floor mate, to be precise. Cursing beneath his breath, he hoped the man would not wake. After all that happened, everyone was still sore and a little on the edge. Luckily the man only stirred and pushed at the feet that hit him.

Grumbling, Vincent sat up slowly and rested against the whitewashed walls, eyeing the room that had over a dozen more people than it could accommodate. He needed to sleep. His master had advised them to get enough sleep but sleep evaded him and he found himself thinking thoughts he ought to have left behind.

His father had been a drunken bastard plus a ravenous rake who slept with anything in skirts and upon his rakish indulgences he delivered two children, one of which was Vincent, a quiet little boy with a great mind but endless limitations. Vincent had grown up with his mother in a little town in Kent, one of the poorest of divisions, living from hand to mouth. He had met his father before, once when he worked in a brothel cleaning the rooms of the wealthy peers who came to seek comfort in the bed of the town’s whores.

The man had seen him in an inebriated state, laughed and said: “Yew look like me” and that was the last he saw of him…He didn’t care though, the man was a true bastard if there ever was one. Thinking about his mother, he closed his eyes tight and let the sweetness of the memories wash over him. He thought about Maureen Lisa Silverton, a pure and sweet woman who smelled of lavender and pine with long black hair he had inherited and sea green eyes filled with warmth. Even in their poverty, she took care of him unlike any mother would and nurtured him to be a better fellow. She was as good as the best of them even till her death.

A lone tear fell down his cheek as he remembered her cold skin and blank eyes when she kissed him goodbye. She had fallen ill weeks before now and with no money or medical care, she had given up and saddled him with the responsibilities of a parent to her year old babe. At the thought of baby, he looked to the little babe at his side and his lips shifted upward. Horatia, he whispered as he ran a hand over her mop of brown hair, careful not to wake her up. My poor Horatia.

He thought with aching sorrow of his sister he cared for. As of now she was the most important thing in his life and the only thing keeping him sane in this world. After all he had been through, he had wanted to end it but one look at his babe sister and he knew he had to live. If nothing, he had to ensure she had a better childhood to look upon and a greater future. Looking now at the situation, it didn’t seem like he could provide her much…if only things would just go back to how they were before. Walking from house to house in need of an employment while working menial duties for a friend to keep Horatia fed wasn’t much of a life but it was better than nothing.

When his back began to ache more, he slid back to the floor and cuddled his sleeping sister…God, the things he would do for her. He remembered this morning, how he had managed to sneak her around without getting caught by the soldiers. Only God could explain how he made it safe but he was thankful either way. He could not let go of her no matter what happened. She was what kept him going and he would not part with that.

A sudden wave of exhaustion swept through him, his eyes drooping low. Thankfully, sleep had returned. With a kiss on his sister’s forehead, he set to sleep only for his babe sister to begin to stir and awaken.

Internally, he cursed and prayed to whoever cared to listen to keep her sleeping. He could not afford to be caught now after all he had gone through to sneak her in. Unfortunately, his prayers remained unanswered and she opened her eyes with a whimper escaping her lips. As quiet as possible, he began to pet her, patting her hair as she liked with hopes that she would remain asleep but no, the babe was having none of it. She began to cry, her hands flailing around despite Vincent’s attempt to keep her quiet.

Frustrated, he reached for his bag, the one he used as her pillow and searched in it for any food that he stuffed in there. He came up with nothing but a bottle of stale milk that his mother had left before she died. Sighing, he twisted the covers and gave it to the girl. For a minute, her cries ceased and she took in the bottle, sucking happily on the murky milk like it was candy. As soon as she had drunk it dry, she turned to him with her dainty blues as if asking for more and when he came up short, she took her cries to the next level and began to wail.

“Shush Horatia, please…” he was almost crying himself. He carried her gently and cradled her in his chest, patting her rear gently. “Shush, my princess…please, for your sake and mine.” She paid no heed to him and added volume to her cries. Frustrated, angry, tired and sleepy, Vincent continued to pat her to sleep. He looked around him, praying that none of the men woke and when none stirred, he released an air of relief…one less problem. “Horatia please…I will get you food by the morning. I know I am a bad brother but baby princess, work with me, please” he said as tears pooled at his eyes. He was just a kid himself.

Horatia if she understood or heard him, gave no evidence and just cried the more.
“Baby please, not now, not today” his voice broke as he raised her up and down, doing whatever to pacify her. Horatia was never a crier, even as a new born babe, she did not cry so often. Whenever she did, it was because of something big and most times it was hunger. They barely had food even when he worked the hardest and though Horatia was the most understanding baby to exist, everyone had their limits. His heart broke as her cries increased and her fair skin turned pink, her veins poking out…she was going to scream very soon and they would catch him and take her away.

He felt a lone tear run down but he rubbed it off quickly. There could not be two criers, one was enough to deal with. He kissed her forehead and muffled her cries as he pressed her face to his chest. “Horatia…”

If only his mother was here, she would have known what to do…he closed his eyes and thought to himself, what would mother do? The harsh wind hit and a song flew into his senses, a lullaby his mother always whistled to lull him to bed. He began to whistle slowly, his lips by her ears and for a while, her cries quietened and she looked up at him with tear-stained face and rosy cheeks. “I love you my baby princess,” he whispered “I love you, Horatia. Don’t cry again, big brother don’t like when you cry” he cooed at her, and made funny faces.

She quietened for a while, her lips parting in a little smile as she stared up at her brother. One second, two seconds, three…ten…twelve and then the silence was broken by a stomach growl…his stomach. She stared up at him for a brief moment, remembered her hunger and her cries resumed…this time a little louder, punishing Vincent for making her forget her hunger.

Vincent cursed repeatedly, what was he going to do? Her cries increased and soon a few men stirred in their sleep. “No….” he groaned. “Horatia…please quieten, soldiers must not get us.” A tear had fallen down his cheek. Two men turned and soon a few of them began to open their eyes, grumbling at whatever interrupted their sleep. Vincent felt himself shrink, hiding away from the glares he presumed were in the eyes of the other men. “And who the hell is that?” someone finally spoke up and Vincent could not be more scared.

He wrapped his arms around his still screaming sister and shrunk into himself.
“Somebody cryin!’” “Any littl’ kid ‘ere?” More people were beginning to wake. He held his breath and pressed his sister’s face close to his chest despite her pitiful protest whilst praying that none of the men around called him out. He could not begin to imagine the possible scenarios that would follow. Thankfully his floor mate was a deep sleeper and had not awoken to call him out. He stayed hidden in the dark, shushing his sister and hoping no one saw him.“Please, Horatia I need you to help big brother.”
“Is that a babe cryin’?” “Soldiers are going to come here any minute. who is that crying”

“Maybe some person hol’ing him.”
“Sounds like a littl’ gurl”
“Who hol’ing a littl’ gurl huh?”
An uproar started as they began to search for the crying baby.
“Some stupid person goin’ get us whipp’d or kill’d”
“Make it easier’ for yerself’ and get the babe out”

At this time his floor mate stirred and their gaze met. With sleepy eyes, the man pointed at him “You with a babe?” he asked. Shaking, Vincent nodded. “That is dangerous man, you know?” The man seemed nice enough, so he answered quietly: “She is my babe sister, I could not let her go.”

The man stared at him for a while, then nodded towards Horatia. “What’s wrong with her?”  Still scared and shaky, he answered yet again as quietly as possible “Food, she needs food.” The man stared again: “This is risky boy, you can’t take care of this child. You’re barely old enough.”

At his last statement, Vincent felt the need to tell the man that he had been her father and mother for the last few weeks but eventually he kept the knowledge to himself, frowning as the man reminded him of the dangers of keeping Horatia.

“I can’t let her go” was his only reply to the man’s lengthy advice. “You say she needs food, right?” He nodded, clutching the still crying child as tight as he could to his fast beating heart. The man murmured words beneath his breathe and sat up straight. With two loud hits on the wall, he drew the attention of the buzzing crowd. “What?” some man called out.

“Anybody around here with some food, edible food I mean” he called out, waving a hand in the air. “If you have got any food, pass to the hand here.” Vincent felt his chest tighten as the man tried to help him. No one but his mother had cared for him before. He never even knew such people still existed. “Yew the one with a cryin’ gurl” came a voice from the other end of the room. The man hissed lightly: “Don’t speak like a fool, if you have got food then pass it on. We all want to return to sleep and we can’t if someone isn’t being fed so check your bags and get something out.”

Vincent hugged his sister tighter, all smiles as he peppered kisses over her face. “Sssh, baby princess, food is coming.” Her cries began to reduce and soon became tiny sobs. “There, there, stop crying now, big brother has got food now.” He was still shushing her when the man turned, angling his head towards him.“How old is she?” “A year and four months.” “And her mother?” “Dead” he croaked out. He shook his head: “You must have had it rough.” Vincent nodded unconsciously.

“She’s such a little kid and I reckon you have no means or plan to care for her, especially in a time like this.” “I would figure a way out.” “Oh you should or better yet give her to a willing woman. A kid like yourself should not have to take care of another.”

He nodded but deep down he knew he’d rather die than give Horatia out. If they found him out and killed him, he was better off dead with his sister than alive and apart. While he sat, hugging his sister as if protecting her from an unseen future, a hand went in the air.

“I got food.” Vincent’s heart leaped for joy. “Ain’t nutin’ much but it is food.” “Pass it on.” The men passed it till it reached the fellow beside him. “Take” he stretched his hands towards Vincent, holding a chunk of stale bread in it. “He was right, it is nothing much but it should do yeah?” Touched by the man’s concern, Vincent felt tears run down his face as he slowly received the bread. He buried his face in his sister’s hair, allowing his tears to flow freely. “Th-an-k yo-u” was all he managed to whisper before breaking down completely. “Get some sleep, we will rise by dawn on the morrow.”

Vincent nodded, unable to bring himself to speak words without tears in between. As he fed his sister and thought of the man’s kindness, a feeling of hope glimmered within him. He could do it…Horatia and I against the world, we can do this….

To be continued on next edition

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