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Yellow Crocus
by Laila Ibrahim

Published: 2014-08-19
Paperback : 252 pages
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Moments after Lisbeth is born, she’s taken from her mother and handed over to an enslaved wet nurse, Mattie, a young mother separated from her own infant son in order to care for her tiny charge. Thus begins an intense relationship that will shape both of their lives for decades to ...

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Introduction

Moments after Lisbeth is born, she’s taken from her mother and handed over to an enslaved wet nurse, Mattie, a young mother separated from her own infant son in order to care for her tiny charge. Thus begins an intense relationship that will shape both of their lives for decades to come. Though Lisbeth leads a life of privilege, she finds nothing but loneliness in the company of her overwhelmed mother and her distant, slave-owning father. As she grows older, Mattie becomes more like family to Lisbeth than her own kin and the girl’s visits to the slaves’ quarters—and their lively and loving community—bring them closer together than ever. But can two women in such disparate circumstances form a bond like theirs without consequence? This deeply moving tale of unlikely love traces the journey of these very different women as each searches for freedom and dignity.

Revised edition: This edition of Yellow Crocus includes editorial revisions.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

Chapter 1

APRIL 14, 1837

Mattie lay curled around the warm shape of her son when the unwanted messenger knocked. She stayed on her pallet, reluctant to end this precious time, and listened to the sound of quiet snores coming from her grandfather. She gazed at Samuel, pressed her nose close against his soft neck to take in his sweet baby scent. She gently wiped the glistening sweat away from his damp forehead and gave him a tender kiss upon his temple. Another intrusive knock struck the door. Mattie got up. Cradling Samuel so close that she could feel warm puffs against her breast, she shuffled across the packed dirt floor. Though she expected this visitor, had anticipated a knock for weeks, she dreaded this moment.

Once she opened the door, her life would forever be divided into before and after.

Mattie slowly pulled on the rough plank door and saw a lithe silhouette in the moonlight. There stood Emily, a skinny girl with pale-hazel eyes and skin the color of tea with milk. Mattie had seen her before but did not know her well. She appeared to be no more than twelve.

In contrast, twenty-year-old Mattie’s skin was dark as roasted coffee beans. She kept her jet-black hair twisted back into two tight braids that framed each side of her narrow face. A dingy white cloth tightly covered her head, as usual.

Without a greeting, Emily mumbled, “You got to come now. The baby gonna be here soon.” With her news delivered, she turned back to the big house.

Mattie called after her, “I gotta pass Samuel over to my poppy.”

“Be quick about it. They expectin’ you.”

As Mattie crossed to his pallet, Poppy sat up to receive his great-grandson. His old hands were swollen and twisted, and just a few teeth stuck out of his swollen gums.

“It time?” he asked.

Mattie nodded. Tears pushed hard against the backs of her eyes. She kissed Samuel tenderly on his round cheek. “I love you,” she quietly whispered into her son’s tiny ear, and pressed her lips against his bald head one last time. Biting her cheek, she carefully passed Samuel into her grandfather’s scarred arms.

“Remember, Rebecca gonna feed him when he get hungry,” she reminded him, though he was well aware of the plan.

He was patient with her as always. “Don’ you worry ’bout him. You just be careful in there.” He patted her dark-brown arm.

She stared into Poppy’s eyes and hoped he understood all that she did not say. She wanted to know that her son would be well cared for, that he would be told she had not chosen to leave him, and that when she returned he would know that she was his mother. But Mattie said nothing. She did not scream in protest or plead for more time. Instead she turned away in silence, blinking back tears as she left her home and abandoned her son. She had no choice. She had to be strong, get through this separation, and return to Samuel as soon as possible.

Whether that would be in months or years, she had no way of knowing.

**

Mattie shivered as she followed the dim light cast by Emily’s oil lamp. They walked toward the big house, a path she had learned to dread and which she rarely traveled.

“How long she been havin’ pains?” Mattie asked as they passed the small brick cookhouse.

“Most of the day, I think. She start screaming after dinner.”

“Her water show yet?”

“Don’ know,” the girl replied as they reached the rear of the big house.

They entered through a painted door and climbed up the worn back stairs to the second floor. Mattie had never been inside this building and had no reason to expect that she ever would be until a few days ago. Field hands did not go into the big house. She did not know why they picked her over her sister Rebecca to feed this new baby. It was not her place to ask or argue with the White folks. She did as she was told.

Nervously, Mattie stepped behind Emily along a soft, colorful rug. Going down the smooth white hallway past several polished doors, Emily stopped in front of the last door on the left.

“They waitin’ in there for you,” she informed Mattie, pointing. Mattie watched the girl’s mouth open wide in a yawn. Then Emily turned and made her way back down the corridor.

Mattie’s heart beat fiercely as she stood alone and uncertain in the long hallway. Suddenly the white door flew open. She jumped back in time to avoid being trampled by a figure rushing out. Warm air tinged with the smell of sweat wafted out of the room. Hesitating at the threshold, Mattie peered into the dim chamber.

A petite White woman with skin the color of heavy cream lay in a large bed. Eyes closed to the world, she moaned loudly. Her damp, dark hair stuck to her sweaty, swollen face. The woman’s features contorted and she cried out in pain. Her eyes squeezed shut so tightly that her lashes disappeared, and her mouth was pulled in so hard that her lips hid in the cave of her mouth.

“There you are,” proclaimed one of the two women hovering around the bed. The large White woman with narrow blue eyes and gray hair pulled into a severe bun pointed to a chair in the corner of the room. “We are not yet in need of you. Complications . . .” She trailed off without a complete explanation. “Go sit in the chair, and do not do anything to upset your mistress.”

Mattie moved into the room as quietly as possible and made herself small to avoid drawing the attention of the red-faced man looming over the foot of the bed. She lowered herself into a plush velvet armchair and unconsciously rubbed the smooth pile with the tips of her brown fingers. Her gaze flew around the room, taking it in. Mrs. Ann, the mistress of the house, was in the intricately carved four-poster bed that took up much of the space. Next to it sat a marble-topped washbasin covered with crumpled cloths. The man directed the two women poised on either side of the bed.

“Hold her down when I am ready to pull the infant out,” he commanded. “Prevent all movement or they both may die.”

The doctor pulled dirty metal forceps out of his bag and wiped them quickly with a bloodstained cloth. Then he bent over the bed.

“Now,” he commanded.

The women pressed their pale hands against the patient’s shoulders and arms, pushing her hard into the mattress. Mattie winced in sympathy and sucked in her breath as the doctor thrust the forceps deep into her thin body. “Ahh, ahhh, ahhh,” screamed Mrs. Ann. The doctor tugged hard on the metal handles, but there was no movement.

Repositioning himself with his legs braced wide apart, the doctor pulled again. His hands slipped off the end of the instrument, leaving it protruding from the woman’s body. He muttered to himself and rubbed his sweaty hands on his pants, then firmly grabbed the forceps once again. Heaving on the forceps, the doctor’s hands slowly slid backward; the instrument moved along with his thick fingers.

Sandwiched tightly between the triangle of the forceps, bulges of purplish scalp emerged between the mistress’s thin white legs.

The doctor grunted. His left hand lost its grip again. “He is a stubborn one!” the doctor said.

He pulled on the forceps again just as the woman’s uterus was contracting, and the infant’s head emerged until Mattie could see the tips of ears. The contraction ended. When the doctor pulled again there was no movement. The next pull came along with a contraction, and this time the rest of the head, shoulders, torso, and limbs rushed out. A purple, motionless infant flopped onto the bed.

The doctor stared at the limp child. Mattie fought the urge to grab the baby, turn it over, and rub hard. Helplessly she waited for the doctor to do something.

Do it, she silently encouraged the child who was ruining her life. Take a breath.

The doctor tied off and then cut the pulsing cord as the infant lay still. The baby suddenly jerked, then tipped back its damp head, opened its blue mouth, and let out a raspy wail. Mattie gave a silent cheer. You did it, little one!

“Good thing I was here for the delivery,” the doctor declared. “This one needed modern medicine to take her first breath.”

“A girl?” asked the new mother.

“Yes,” confirmed the doctor matter-of-factly.

The young woman craned her neck to see and reached out her arms for her daughter. The doctor carelessly bundled the infant in a receiving blanket and started to pass her to the woman in the bed.

“Not now. You are too weak to hold the girl,” said the large woman with the bun. “Give her to the wet nurse,” she directed the doctor.

The mother collapsed against the bed without argument. With a shrug of his shoulders, the doctor carried the damp bundle to Mattie. Handing the newborn over, he asked, “Is your milk in?”

“Yes, sir. My son, he born some months ago,” replied Mattie, looking down at the oak floor.

“Then do what you came here to do,” replied the doctor. He turned back to the bed to receive the afterbirth and stitch up his patient.

Mattie looked down at the nameless pink baby. The forceps had left blue and purple bruises around her smushed ears. The infant was already licking her lips and bobbing her head in search of food. Drawing up her shirt, Mattie exposed a full breast with a large nipple ready for an infant’s mouth. She took her breast in hand and gently tickled the tiny lips with the raised nub until the baby opened her mouth wide. Then Mattie swiftly pulled the baby close until the infant’s eager mouth covered her breast. The baby sucked vigorously and soon Mattie felt the familiar tug as her milk flowed. She settled back on the soft, cushioned chair, holding the baby girl against her heart. Gazing at this new life, Mattie thought about Samuel, asleep on a hard pallet in another world only two hundred steps away. Her body ached for him. She wanted to be holding him in her arms, not this strange child. She wondered if he was sleeping soundly next to Poppy or if he was stirring, hoping for his morning feed. It broke her heart to know he could not possibly begin to understand that their life together was now over.

Before the newborn finished suckling, the big White woman with the tight bun interrupted. “You will call the baby Miss Elizabeth. I am Mrs. Gray, the housekeeper. Follow me.”

Mattie gently removed Miss Elizabeth from her breast and rearranged her own clothing. Using her pinky finger as a pacifier to soothe the newborn, she followed with the sticky baby in her arms.

Mrs. Gray led the pair along the dimly lit hall to a room at the back of the house. A green couch and two beige chairs sat around a fireplace on the right side of the room. Straight ahead, a small bed and a rocking chair nestled close to a long window. The housekeeper did not stop here, but crossed left to another door that led to a small, windowless chamber. A low bed, covered with a faded quilt, occupied most of the room, and a small cupboard took up what little space remained. On the far wall was another door.

Standing in the doorway between the two rooms, Mrs. Gray lectured, “The large room is Miss Elizabeth’s. You will sleep in here. The rear door leads to the servant hallway and stairs. You are to take the front staircase only when you are accompanying Miss Elizabeth. When she is not with you, you will use the rear staircase. There are two sets of clothes for your use—two dresses and two nightgowns—in this wardrobe.” Mrs. Gray pointed as Mattie struggled to follow her directions. “You will place one day gown and one nightgown in the chute each Monday morning—that is the day after the Sabbath. You may not have your clothes laundered more than once a week. You will not need that head rag any longer, so that will be thrown out. Emily, the second-floor maid, will bring you meals three times a day. If you have any questions, you may ask Emily; she is fully aware of the routines of the household. You will be told when Miss Elizabeth is to be taken outside her room.”

Mrs. Gray stared at Mattie. “Becoming a house slave is a rare privilege. I trust you will not abuse it?”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied Mattie.

“Warm wash water is on the stand by Miss Elizabeth’s dresser,” Mrs. Gray instructed as they returned to Miss Elizabeth’s room. “Bathe her before the water is chilled.”

After Mrs. Gray left, Mattie looked at the infant cradled in her arms and remarked, “Look like it just us, little girl. Don’ know what I gonna do with you. Suppose we gonna figure it out together. First we look round your room; then we gonna wash you up.”

Mattie walked Miss Elizabeth around the room and took in her new surroundings. Long strips of dark-green material hung on poles suspended across the wall a few inches below the ceiling. After crossing to touch the smooth silk, Mattie realized it covered something. Parting the drapes, she saw two long windows. Mattie had seen glass, knew the word for it, but had never touched it. She rubbed her rough fingertips up and down the cold, smooth surface. She gazed out, her breath catching at the sight of the slave quarters. It was still dark outside, but she could make out each small building.

Disoriented, viewing her home from above, she puzzled out which dwelling belonged to which family. When she found her own cabin, the fifth in the row with log benches in back, her heart leaped. She searched for Samuel and Poppy, but they were not in sight. She stared out the window, yearning for a glimpse of them. Her eyes welled up with tears and her heart tightened. No one was up out there, but she kept watching.

Miss Elizabeth’s mewling brought Mattie’s attention back to the baby. She gave the infant her finger and then looked around again. To the left of the windows, a newly made, tightly stitched patchwork quilt covered a narrow bed made of a rich cherrywood. The bright fabrics formed a pattern of flying geese set to take flight out the window. She sat upon the bed, marveling at its comfort and the feel of smooth fabric.

“You got yourself a fine place to sleep, baby girl, not that you gonna be usin’ it anytime soon.” Mattie said. For many months, the baby would sleep with her in the anteroom.

To the right of the window, in the corner, the brightly polished rocking chair waited. A matching chest of drawers with a quilted pad on top stood next to it. She laid the baby on top, next to the washbowl with warm water. Opening each drawer, Mattie found finely stitched baby gowns, socks, diapers, and bonnets rolled in tight packages like eggs waiting to hatch. Looking down at the infant, Mattie remarked with a shake of her head, “You already got more clothes than the field hands all put together.”

She selected a set of smooth cotton clothes and laid them on the bed. She carefully unwrapped the floppy infant and dipped the girl in the shallow bowl of lukewarm water. Miss Elizabeth cried in protest as Mattie rubbed away white vernix and red blood, the last vestiges of the womb.

“Hush, hush. You gonna be all right. It not so bad,” Mattie assured Miss Elizabeth. “We all done now. The worst of it over.”

Mattie quickly tied a soft flannel diaper on the baby. She tugged a crisp white gown over the girl’s downy-topped head, being careful to avoid the bruised and tender areas of Elizabeth’s face; then Mattie pulled the thin, mottled arms through the gown’s puffy sleeves and swaddled her tight in a flannel blanket. Then the newborn relaxed and stared intently up at Mattie.

“See, you all right now,” Mattie murmured. “You all clean.”

She stared at the newborn. She ran her finger over her red face and the light fuzz of brows that were barely visible. The eyes staring back at her were a strange muddy-blue color. Unlike Samuel, this little being seemed like a creature from another world. It was hard to believe she would ever be lovely to look at.

Despite her exhaustion and sorrow, Mattie was curious about this place. “We gonna see about the rest of your room now. What this over here?” She walked to the furniture near the fireplace and perched upon the green velvet davenport. She explored the movements of the springs by bouncing up and down. Next she shifted to each chair in turn and attempted to bounce on them, but they were hard and did not move.

Leaving a swaddled Miss Elizabeth nestled at the back of the davenport, Mattie knelt down to examine the intricate tile work on the hearth and around the façade of the fireplace. It was cold like the windows, but filled with rich colors in shades of green and gold. She traced the swirling colors with her finger, then stood up and was startled at the sight of movement in front of her.

“Hello!” she called out.

There was no reply. She leaned forward to get a better view of the scene. A woman came toward her. Mattie jumped back in surprise. The image retreated as she did. Cautiously she raised a hand to the glass. It felt cool and smooth. She peered in closely, then turned to examine the room, then turned back again. The room spread in front of her and behind her. This was like looking in water. She tilted her head left and right, opened her mouth, poked out her tongue, and studied her own reflection.

She looked carefully at her own round eyes, seeing them clearly for the first time. As a child, she’d been told they were like her mother’s. In this reflection she now saw that was true. They were big and warm, dark-brown like her mama’s. She reached up to touch her face, watching her own hand explore her cheeks, lips, and nose. Mattie searched for Samuel’s features in her own. The nose, she decided. She and Samuel shared a nose. And maybe the ears.

“Little girl, this place sure is somethin’,” Mattie spoke out loud, shaking her head as she retrieved Miss Elizabeth from the couch.

She turned a full circle, following the wandering flowers along the wallpaper until she was looking at the rocking chair once again. Mattie pulled the chair close to the window, sat with Miss Elizabeth in her arms, and looked out over the slave quarters. The sun was just rising and soon everyone would be emerging to go work the fields. Occasionally she glanced at the door to confirm no one was watching her. She stared and rocked, rocked and stared, as if desire alone could will her spirit across the divide.

Eventually Poppy came out of their cabin with Samuel in his arms. He turned away from the big house and headed toward Rebecca’s for Samuel’s morning feeding. Leaning close to the window, Mattie searched her son’s face for any signs of distress. It was hard to make out clearly from this distance, but she could tell he wasn’t crying. Samuel’s little head poked above Poppy’s shoulder, his placid face bobbing in rhythm with his great-grandfather’s gait. Mattie stared hard as her son got smaller and smaller until he faded out of sight altogether, like a leaf floating down a river.

Washed over with yearning and loss, Mattie could not bear to watch her world any longer. She left the room with the window and sought out the strange bed in the little anteroom. She took the baby into the quiet, dark cave and closed the door behind them. After placing the infant in the middle of the old quilt, Mattie lay down and wept. She burrowed her head in her arms and her tears flowed and flowed, like a hot summer storm, down her cheeks into the fluffy feather pillow. She ached for her son with such force that she could hardly breathe.

When her sobs subsided, she raised her head to look at the stranger sleeping next to her. Tiny blue veins showed beneath translucent, pale skin in Miss Elizabeth’s eyelids. The fragile and dependent baby lay unaware of the world around her. Mattie touched tiny eyes, nose, lips; her hand trailed across the infant’s soft chin, her small, vulnerable neck.

A wave of hatred washed over her.

Mattie laid her hand across the tiny mouth and pressed down until it covered two small nostrils as well. Her heart pounded fiercely behind her rib cage. In a few minutes this could be over. The infant squirmed, her lips parted, and a loud, sudden cry escaped from the small body.

Mattie jerked her hand away.

“I trapped here, but I ain’t so desperate, little one,” she whispered fiercely. “I ain’t gonna hurt you, little miss,” reassuring herself and God, not the oblivious child.

Mattie collapsed onto the bed. Exhausted, she longed to sleep, to escape into her dreams, but as she lay flat on her back, her mind filled with images. She pictured Samuel screaming in Rebecca’s arms, his back arched in utter protest. She wondered if Rebecca would remember to swaddle him just right, with his arms bent up, if he cried hard. She replaced the image of screaming Samuel with an image of him utterly satisfied on Rebecca’s breast. That was not much more of a comfort.

She rose and went by herself back to the other room with the window. Pressing her ear hard against the glass, she listened for sounds of her son. Nothing. She heard only the loud swoosh of her own pulse.

“Rebecca know how to take care of a baby,” she whispered to herself. “She real good and she love Samuel. Rebecca and Poppy gonna take good care of him.”

Mattie prayed out loud: “Dear God, it me, Mattie. I know it mornin’ and I mostly only talk to you at night, but today I need extra help. Please watch over my Samuel. Make him happy to get food from Rebecca, but not so happy he forget about me. Help me to treat this here little baby good. And make her not need me for so long, so I can get back to my family. Thank you for listenin’ to me extra. Amen.”

Mattie crossed back to her little room. She lay down in her bed and turned her back to the infant she had left there. She sang to herself as she lay there, hoping that the comforting words of a familiar lullaby would lull her to sleep.

When she awoke a few hours later to the sounds of a hungry baby, she found herself curled around Miss Elizabeth, like a mother cat encircling her kittens. Her heart sank when she remembered where she was and why she was here. But she did her duty, and gave this baby what she needed. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Mother-child relationships are a central theme in Yellow Crocus. How
do you think the setting affected that relationship for all people?

What, if any, parallels do you see between the culture in Yellow
Crocus and in our current society?

What were some of the key experiences that Lisbeth had that changed
her understanding of the world in which she lived?

Lisbeth reaction to Edward’s raping the field hand was naive. Miss
Anne’s reaction was nonchalant. Who’s reaction was more surprising to
you?

Who is your favorite character and why?

Early in the book, Mattie seemed certain she would never try to
escape, yet by the end she did. What do you think changed for her?

Most people born into Lisbeth’s situation would have gone on with the
status quo. If she had not seen Edward rape the field hand, do you
think she would have married him?

Do you know anyone who had a relationship similar to Mattie and Lisbeth’s?

What was surprising to you? Was there anything you could not believe?

What specific themes did Laila Ibrahim emphasize throughout the novel?
What do you think she is trying to get across to the reader?

Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did
you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness
of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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