When I was thinking about my next blog, I thought maybe you’d like to occasionally read excerpts from my unpublished sequel to SARAH’S SECRET. Its central character is Charlotte Dunhill, a younger cousin of Sarah’s. It's some of my best writing, I think. You decide.
When Charlotte was ten or so, she crept through the darkness one night to spy on a funeral at the People’s cemetery. The funeral was for a teenaged boy named Edgar. It was the stupidest thing Charlotte had ever done, and yet she would have done it all again to witness what she saw that night.
Edgar’s body was wrapped in what appeared to be a quilt top without the stuffing, and he was resting on blocks of wood. The People gathered around him, reached for each other’s hands, and began to sing “All Hail The Power of Jesus’ Name,” but they didn’t sing it like they did at St. Philips. They sang it slowly, so slowly that each word sounded as though it was going to be the last.
Then some men took Edgar’s body out from under the quilt top,
lowered him into a narrow grave and covered it with dirt. All the while, there was more singing going on. Charlotte couldn’t tell who was leading the singing, but she got the impression that no one was in charge. Everyone just knew what to do.
After the second hymn, the funeral-goers stood so quietly, that for a moment Charlotte thought the funeral was over. Suddenly three men appeared, and she knew that it was just changing gears.
The men were carrying long tapered drums made out of tree stumps. They were joined by another man clutching a pair of rib bones, probably from a cow, and another holding two long pieces of scrap iron.
Although Charlotte knew practically everyone on the plantation, there wasn’t enough light to recognize any of the musicians. She was kind of glad since she was trespassing and all. While the men took their places, the dying torches were replaced with fresh ones. Their brilliance, however, didn’t bring more light, instead they cast ghoulish shadows on everything, including the humblest blades of grass.
Well, that was it, she thought. Snakes were going to appear from everywhere, and the earth was going to rise up in a lava-encrusted mound, and then it was going to crack open and Satan was going to step out. He was going to strut among the People sticking out his pointed tongue and giving nasty smiles to the women, while he slapped the backs of the men and called them by their names.
It was the end of the world. The Bible was right about heaven and hell, and Charlotte was going to witness the whole thing whether she liked it or not, because she was stuck in pluff mud up to her knees.
At that moment she started to pray harder than she’d ever prayed in her life, not the Now, I lay me down to sleep kind of praying, but the Save my retched soul from the belly of the beast, Lord Jesus! kind. Ol’ Scratch was on his way and he was going to melt her backside with one flick of his finger, and she was going to be a pile of ashes before Jesus could save her.
Then the most astonishing thing happened. The land didn’t mound up, the torches stopped their grotesque light show, and everything got quiet, really, really quiet. Then the funeral-goers formed two concentric circles around Edgar’s grave, and the drums and bones and scrap iron instruments started beating softly.
As the drumming intensified, the People began to sway from side to side in unison. It frightened Charlotte but at the same time it was strangely beautiful.
Satan hadn’t shown up that night. It was the god of Abraham or maybe the god of Africa who came calling. Charlotte didn’t know, but one of them was there, and the People knew it, too. As they moved in and out of the circles, they stomped their feet at certain times causing dust to puff up around the circles.
The women clapped their hands above their heads, and the men beat their hands on their thighs and chest. Pattin’ juba, it was called.
They sang one of their own songs this time, a song with shouts and heel stomping and it was repeated again and again. Charlotte didn’t recognize the song, but she did remember that it was something about wading in water.
As the song was sung, sung again, and sung another time, the dancing became more graceful and it was plain to see that the dancers were dancing with Jesus, not with each other. They were twirling and stamping and shouting and spinning and it was glorious.
Charlotte was so caught up in the excitement that she didn’t pick up on the first small wave of water that rippled around her waist, but she felt the second. Something, something big, was right behind her, and she was going to die!
And then a hand grasped her shoulder sending a bolt of electricity down into her toes, and she turned her head to see Papa. He had his finger up to his lips cautioning her to keep quiet. And then he grabbed her under her arms and pulled her out of the mud, leaving her boots to stay as a reminder of her disobedience, and forcing her to hobble home in her stocking feet.
When Edgar died, Dunhill Plantation didn't have a People's Chapel, so the funerals for Edgar and the other enslaved people on the plantation were held at the gravesite. Later most plantations built chapels for the people. Here are two that still exist.
One is at Mansfield Plantation, the other is at Hobcaw Barony, both in Georgetown County, SC. Weddings are still held in the chapels.
One of the several definitions of a sanctuary is a place that you know God dwells. It can be a quiet place beneath a boat, in a barn or in a 12th century European cathedral. God is not picky. If you ever visit the chapels pictured here, you may have the overpowering sense that I had. Although rustic, with swollen floorboards, broken windows, spiderwebs and alters fashioned from kitchen tables, Mansfield and Hobcaw Barony chapels are as magnificent as any sanctuaries on earth.