Nalini’s shadowy figure dashed through the sugar cane field. The tall stalks loomed like sinister sentinels on either side. Overhead, billowing clouds clotted the black sky, their outlines glowing gray in the moonlight.
“Come bak heah!” a voice behind her barked.
She hurtled down the path until she stumbled, slipping face first into the mud. The fall knocked the wind out of her. Searing pain shot through her leg.
Get up and keep running. Even though Nalini’s brain barked the command, she remained motionless, afraid even to breathe, lest the gulps of air revealed her location. Her face pressed against the rain-dampened dirt.
“I gon find ya. Ya can’t hide from me,” he shouted.
Have to hide. Nalini lifted her head and squinted as she searched for an opening in the cane to crawl into.
Mustering strength, she pushed herself forward with her arms and slid on her stomach into the thicket until she was hidden by the foliage.
“Where dat girl go?” the man muttered. The rustling sounds grew closer and Nalini flinched, willing herself to not scream. He stopped; his mud-caked shoes inches from her face. Her heart pounded against the ground. Sweat dribbled down her back, stinging the raw, whipped skin.
The man called out, “Ya hafta come out sometime. Can’t hide from me forevah.” He continued down the path.
As she lay there, Nalini hoped the ground would open up and swallow her. She felt a chill across her damp back as a gust of wind shot across the fields. It had been five months since she and her brother had boarded the ship in Calcutta and sailed across the black water to the plantation in Demerara. During the voyage, her brother developed dysentery and Nalini wished she had been thrown overboard with his corpse.
Have to leave. Today. Her mind whirled. Finally sensing that the overseer had given up his pursuit of her for tonight, Nalini struggled to stand up. Once on her feet, she brushed the dirt from her clothes and hobbled to the plantation manager’s house. The full moon overhead illuminated the path.
Behind the house, she found the house servant’s quarters. Nalini tapped the door.
“Who dere?” Hannah flung the door open. “Chile, wot you doin out here?”
Nalini shook her head and licked her parched lips, trying to find the words to explain her plan. “Leave,” was all she could say. “Go home.”
“You can’t leave. You sign ‘greement with Mistah Joseph.”
“Go home,” Nalini brought her hands together and implored.
“How you gon get home? You got money?”
Nalini shook her head as the enormity of the obstacle she faced pressed upon her heart. Tears welled up in her eyes. She fell to her knees at the cook’s feet and cried.
“Hush, chile. Hush.” Hannah scooped the girl up off the ground and brought her inside. “Don’ know why I’s doin this. If Mistah find out, I get beat for sure.” Hannah pointed to a mat on the floor and Nalini sat down. The cook hovered over her.
“In da mornin, Samuel takin da wagon to Georgetown. You hide in da wagon and he take you dere. After dat, you on your own.” Hannah studied the girl to see if she understood.
“Go home morning?” Nalini whispered.
Hannah smiled, “Yes, you go home.”
Before sunrise, Hannah packed Nalini into the back of the wagon and covered her with a stack of empty sacks. The girl trembled at the thought of being caught, as well as the idea of returning to India. She was willing to risk the journey again if it meant never seeinggg the overseer’s face again. She shuddered as she remembered his rough, ebony hands grabbing her arms, his rum-laced breath against her face.
“We heah,” Samuel called. Nalini rubbed her eyes and lifted the sacks to face the sunlight glowing bright against billowing white clouds in the sapphire sky.
Bewildered, Nalini looked at the enormous white building. She craned her neck to see the entire structure.
“Dis Saint George church. Dey help you. Go on,” Samuel helped the girl down from the wagon and pointed at the building. “Go.”
Mustering her courage, Nalini inhaled the damp air of freedom and limped into the church to begin the journey home.
Author’s note: Between 1838 and 1917, almost 240,000 East Indian indentured workers were brought to British Guiana, now known as Guyana. Their descendants, known as Indo-Guyanese, comprise 51% of the population of the country today.
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