Here is the first chapter of my WIS. It is an historical novel for young adults set in 1733 and follows a mulatto slave girl on her unusual path towards piracy. It's my first historical novel and really I just wanted to write about pirates, but Amber jumped in my head and it turned into her story. The difficult part of this book is that there is a strong dialect in many of the lead characters - some are from Africa, some are Dutch, others have a Carribbean 'slang'. It instantly turned off one agent who had been sniffing around my work. Yet I haven't been able to stop trying to find a place for it as although it gets very mixed responses, those who have enjoyed it tell me it's strong and epic. They're probably just being very nice...
Amber knew she was dreaming; the colours were too bright and it had that surreal quality that only comes with the subconscious. Yet despite knowing it was a dream, she couldn’t wake or even control her actions. It was as if she was vividly being forced to act out some strange play.
In the dream she was standing at the bow of a great ship looking out to sea. The sky and sea were so blue that the dividing line between them was nearly impossible to see. And there was not a breath of wind, although she knew without looking that the sails were full and pushing them forward at intense speed.
‘Take care of her,’ her mother’s voice echoed behind her.
She turned to look, but instead of seeing her mother, her eyes met the biggest, most imposing black man she’d ever seen.
‘Take the sword,’ he said, though his lips didn’t move.
She looked down. In his grip was a sharp-looking cutlass covered in blood. He didn’t smile or move any muscle in his face, but he held the sword out for her to take.
And then the scene changed. All around her there was jungle; green, lush, and humid. She could hear the sound of a waterfall and instinctively she knew to follow the sound.
‘The others must be here,’ said a man next to her – materialising out of nowhere.
At first she didn’t think she knew him, but he looked so familiar she just stared.
‘They are close, Amber. Be prepared to use your sword.’ He pulled a pistol out of his big red sash and suddenly Amber knew who he was.
He turned to her then and smiled gently – the way he smiled whenever she asked a childish question.
‘You must be prepared to fight to the death.’
Amber bolted upright, breathing heavily. Her sweat-soaked nightdress twisted uncomfortably around her legs and she pulled at them to get the air flowing around her body again. Her heart was still pounding heavily and the memory of the dream lingered in her mind. ‘Just a dream,’ she whispered to herself.
She bit her lip. The other girls were still sleeping and she had no right to wake them before the workday.
She shivered in the sticky heat. The dream had felt so real. But she’d never been to sea, or anyplace else other than the plantation. This was her home and she was born here. So how did the ship and jungle feel so vivid? She felt irritated.
Her arms were still shaking from the dream when she forced herself back to sleep.
The hot noonday sun beat down against Amber’s shoulders as she worked with the rest of the slaves in the unforgiving fields of sugarcane. The air was hot and sweet, with an almost burnt paper smell to it. The canes felt brittle and dry – easy to harvest, but also easy to cut into her skin.
Amber sighed heavily and put her basket down on the hard scorched earth. Her hands had been cut twice that morning, and she cursed herself for being so sloppy. She looked up at the sky. Still no signs of rain. The leaves were already tinged with brown as they harvested early to beat the drought. Putting her dirty calloused hands behind her lower back, she stretched, curling her shoulders backwards and letting her lower vertebrae crack.
Below them, the aquamarine blue of the ocean glittered enticingly. It looked deceptively peaceful – like it felt in her dream. A seagull winged over her, crying loudly as it flew. It circled twice and flew back towards the outcrop of rocks by the shore. She couldn’t hear the pounding surf – they were too close to the protected harbour. All she could hear was a few of the slaves humming – Abel and Joshua by the sound of it, and of course the crack of the cane as it was cut and slapped into baskets.
She was grateful to have been assigned the outlaying fields – closer to the ocean and therefore much cooler. The oppressively humid, mosquito-laden inland fields were usually worked by the younger, more robust crowd. She may be young, but being a woman classed her as ‘dainty’, even if she was a slave.
She laughed at the thought of a dainty slave. Cutting, lifting, carrying, walking with loads, digging…it all added up to make a person pretty robust. She flexed her hand and winced. Robust didn’t make it hurt any less though when the cane cut your flesh.
Something dark caught here eye and she looked out to sea. She could just make out a tiny speck of sails on the horizon. Her neck prickled as she was once again reminded of her dream. She knew it was just another slave ship brining more strong backs to the islands, but it made her hands shake nonetheless.
There have been more ships coming to the islands over the last few years, dropping off new shipments of slaves. She’d never been to any other island herself, but she’d heard visiting sailors talk about them. So far as she understood they were pretty much all the same – the islands around here anyway. She heard Jamaica was exciting. Port Royal came up in conversations regularly, though she couldn’t understand what was so appealing about it. She’d no desire to leave home.
Stretching again, she frowned. There was no way of telling which of the islands the ship would stop at – possibly all. Newcomers often meant trouble; and disease; and rats. There were more rats than humans that came ashore and the new slaves were little more than walking corpses for the first few months. As healer, her mother would have to work overtime, late into the night, working with the ill and diseased. Those iron shackles left the most horrid scars. It always made her glad she never had to do the crossing. Her mother told her very little of the experience. She’d said it was very sad, that some slaves didn’t survive the journey and that others just kept on going but had “died inside”.
The lunch bell rang out clear and Abe’s voice from the fields yelled, ‘lunchtime!’ Amber, along with everyone else, dropped her basket and cutting tools, eager to get into the shade and to get some water.
She didn’t follow the rest to lunch. Instead, she passed the rows of tables shaded by pepper trees and went to her mother’s hut.
‘Hi, Mama,’ she leaned over and gave her mother a kiss on the cheek. ‘You been workin hard?’ She looked over to the corner of the hut where her mother had hung up fresh herbs for drying.
‘Yes, bootiful girl!’ Her mother squeezed her shoulder affectionately before sighing and sitting down by the stew pot. She poured out two helpings of broth and handed one to Amber. It was boiling in the hut, but it was still better than being in the sun. The hard packed earth floor retained its coolness from the nights. There were no chairs to sit in, which worked just fine for Amber. She didn’t trust those wobbly chair legs anyway.
Amber took a spoon from the table and reached for a hunk of bread. ‘Did ya see da ship?’
Her mama nodded slowly, getting up from her seat by the broth and walked to the hole in the wall that served as a window. ‘I saw da ship before I saw da ship.’
Amber repressed a shiver. Her mother saw things often before they happened, and never with any positive ending. ‘Did ya throw da bones?’ she asked finally.
Her mother nodded slowly and turned back to Amber. ‘Dere will be some big, big changes, but what? I know not, my darling. A big man is coming, ‘e will be changin some things, but what?’ She shrugged and forced a smile. ‘I prepare da herbs for da fever anyway. Just in case.’
‘Then da ship is for us,’ Amber acknowledged slowly. Her appetite was waning, but she slowly ate her broth anyway – there would be little chance for food if there were fevered newcomers to tend to. The ship would likely be docked by sundown and then Amber would be busy helping her mother administer the homemade drugs.
She put her spoon down and moved quickly to the door as she heard the familiar squeaking of the young master’s shoes. William was the master’s only son and although he was taught manners and civility by his nanny, he’d recently decided that the best way to become a man was to treat the slaves with arrogant dissent. Amber cringed. Although still childish in mind, the young master was forcing his advances for some reason on her.
She quickly ducked behind the door before he could catch her. His creaking shoes became louder and the door was pushed open just enough to let the pompous brat inside. Amber could hear his breathing and almost see his sweaty brow furrowed in disgust.
‘Ah, Young Masta, what do bring ya to my door? Is da washin no good?’
Amber heard the young master reply haughtily. ‘No, slave, the washing is fine. Where is your girl?’
‘Ah,’ said her mother, ‘is she no with da others?’
‘No, you lying pig, where is she?’ His voice sounded angry and impatient and Amber stiffened in the corner, hoping desperately that he wouldn’t come into the shack.
‘O Masta, she done and gone, would ya like me ta give her a message?’ Her mother’s voice sounded firm, brave. Amber smiled. Nobody could manhandle her mama. Amber heard the youth mutter a curse and walk away.
‘He’s gone dauta. Ya can come out now.’
Amber let out the breath she was holding and returned to her seat on the floor, picking up her soup bowl. ‘What did he want?’
Her mother frowned. ‘E wanted you, my bootiful dauta. I’ll be watchin that one.’ She leaned closer to Amber.
Amber snorted. ‘He’s just a child,’ she said lightly. ‘He likes ta think he can get us in trouble, but da masta knows it’s just a childish game.’
Her mother frowned and shook her head. ‘Do na underestimate dat one,’ she said evenly. ‘E be no good. Promise me ya’ll na give em a chance to see ya punished.’
‘I promise, mama, I promise.’ The work bell sounded and she heard Abe’s deep voice call out for the workers to return to the fields.
Amber frowned and pushed her broth away. ‘Thank ya, Mama.’ She got up and kissed her on the cheek. ‘That was delicious.’
Her mother chuckled. ‘You did’na eat half!’
Smiling, Amber pivoted her calloused foot on the earth floor to go, but her mother put a hand on her arm.
‘Stay, my dauta.’
Panic welled in Amber’s chest and the thought of the whip landing on her bare back made her mouth go dry. ‘But Abe will know I’ve skipped work. I’ll be punished!’ Abe was the foreman assigned to Amber’s field. He was a lovely man, but diligent – anyone skipping work would be reported and therefore whipped.
Her mother chuckled again, hiding her crooked white teeth behind a clutched fist. ‘Da man canna touch ya! Besides,’ she swayed closer and whispered into her ear. ‘I have told ‘em of da ship. E knows I need ya.’ She leaned back on her hips and sighed. ‘With da medicines.’
Amber nodded and tried to fathom her mother’s intentions. She usually helped with medicines after work in the fields had stopped for the day. Something about this felt different.
‘Now, get me da big bowl. Over dere, girl.’ Her mother pointed to the small wooden table by the door. It was covered with a dark cloth that looked like wool. Amber lifted the cloth carefully, as if something dangerous might crawl out and bite her, but as she peered under the table, there was only a stack of bowls. She lifted out the smaller ones, dragged out the largest from the base, and put the stack back into place. Picking up the large dark wood bowl with both hands, she walked it to the table and set it in the middle. It smelled of wet wood and bitter herbs and she wiped her hands on her cotton apron in case any of the residue was unsafe.
Her mother was nodding approvingly at her.
‘What next?’ she asked. She felt a guilty pang at not being in the fields with the rest of the slaves and avoided her mother’s eyes.
‘Now ya watch, dauta.’
Amber backed away slowly to the back of the hut and crouched by the hearth and watched. She didn’t know what to expect. She felt the cold clamminess of unknown things creep up her skin and dig deep into her palms. It made her want to scratch her hands.
Her mother placed some pre-cut herbs into the bowl alongside some other things which looked suspiciously like entrails and smelled foul. The bowl seemed to steam or react as some low vapour spread from the inside and Amber’s mother began a low chanting that seemed to echo from the walls and not at all from her lips. Then, as the chanting sped and deepened into a near guttural growl, her mother’s eyes seemed to roll and glaze until she looked like the undead.
Amber felt a chill slither down her spine. The vapour from the bowl spread unnaturally and swirled around her feet. It felt like something invisible was crawling up her legs and spreading over her skin. She tried to jump up and scream, but she couldn’t lift her limbs and no sound came from her lips.
Her heart began pounding hard, and the memory of her dream came back – splitting her head into vivid flashes. She was back in the jungle, running from the hoard of men carrying torches. Their voices shouted at her angrily as she jumped over fallen branches and twisted vines.
Then, just as suddenly, she was back in her mother’s hut. The chanting had stopped but instead of silence and the odd crackle of the fire, Amber felt a deep, rhythmic drumming. Her blood seared though her flesh like a thousand splinters of dried cane and as she looked down at her own hands - they seemed to be steaming like the contents of the wooden bowl.
Again, she tried to open her mouth to cry out, but it felt like a dirty apron had been shoved inside, drying out her tongue and keeping her jaw from moving. As the loud drumming increased, she realised with horror that it was her own heartbeat.
‘Ere now, dauta,’ said her mother’ voice while gentle but calloused hands lifted her from the floor. ‘Drink some of that.’
A cup of steaming tea was put into her palm and she inhaled the fumes. The pungent aroma brought her senses back and she tried to smile.
‘Not now, dauta, ya’ve ad a bit of da magic though ya. By da time ya finish ya tea, ya’ll be ready for da fields again.’
‘Well, well, now. There you are.’ William flashed his angry blue eyes at her while his lips curled in a mocking smile. ‘I missed you at the slave’s dinner table. And then you weren’t in the fields with the others – where you should have been.’
Amber felt her mouth turn to dust. She shifted her cane basket and continued to work. ‘Good afternoon, Young Master,’ she said civilly. She felt her stomach knot as he strode closer.
‘Perhaps your mother is right. Perhaps you are too fine to be working the fields. Maybe you could work at the manor.’ He paused and stepped back in his shiny black shoes as if to appraise her. ‘You know, you could clean up pretty well.’ He put a hand out to touch her hair and she repressed a shiver. ‘A long soak in the bath and a good scrub might get rid of those fleas. Why, if I scrub you long enough, I bet you’d go white!’
Amber didn’t look at him. Instead, she kept her eyes on the cane and continued working.
‘Now, now, don’t play games. I know what you want you little tease,’ he said, lowering his voice and lifting the back of her skirt.
‘Get off!’ Amber yelled, dropping her basket of cane. She felt her face flush and she gripped the knife in her hand defensively, ready to use it if need be.
William smiled lewdly. ‘I could have you whipped for that,’ he said lightly. ‘And then take you when you’re down.’
Amber felt a surge of panic. She knew him well enough that it was no idle threat and she knew also that if she cut him, it would be the end of her. Her eyes wandered the fields to see how far she could run.
‘Suppertime!’ shouted Abe from across the fields. Amber’s racing heart began to steady. It would be moments before the entire plantation’s work force passed by on their way to the evening meal.
William’s greedy expression soured and he turned on his polished boot heal and left as quickly as he’d come.
Someone came up behind her and she jumped as the sound of raw feet crushing dried cane.
‘Ey now Amber, don’t be jumpin!’
Amber relaxed and forced a smile return to her face. ‘Evening, Peep.’ She felt like she’d run the entire field twice, but having Peep near was a blessing as the young master wouldn’t dare try his advances with an audience.
Peep smiled back at her, flashing his white teeth. He was one of the slaves from the first ship she had ever seen as a child, and only a few years younger than her. Although he was baptised with the name Samuel, his small frame and friendly nature earned him the nickname Peep, as he would ‘peep’ around corners and over baskets to speak to people.
‘Come on now, let’s get some food! Did ya see the ship earlier? I bet it ports soon!’
Amber had to nod as Peep kept talking quickly while they walked. As he nattered on about the possible newcomers, she felt the apprehensive wave of tension over her evening’s task.