Freedom didn’t mean much to Negros on the Mount. Abolition had swept through the Valley like a cool breeze, so Nettie’s family technically didn’t belong to the Robinsons anymore, but no wind was strong enough to penetrate the mines.
Nettie sat at the Point, the thin blade of rock wedged into the top of the Mount. She wrapped her arms around her legs and stared into the fog of the Valley. Mr. Robinson owned every tool in the mines, everything that brought him his coal. The ventilation shaft belonged to him, and the pickaxes. The shovels and skip wagon. The carbide lamps.
No, there was no freedom in the mines. Nettie was born a tool, lived a tool, and could only hope she didn’t die as one, too. Nettie scowled at the rising sun. She’d never had much hope.
The sunlight burned the fog to reveal Nettie’s view. After the steep drop of the Point, the slope of trees stumbled down the side of the Mount until they ran into the wall of dairy farms that surrounded the whites’ town. On the other side of the town, deep in the Valley, a hollow was growing between the trees. It was the Negros of the Valley. Nettie held up her thumb and squinted. Just last week, the hollow was the size of her smallest toe, and now it was the size of her thumb nail. They were making good progress, and she tried to be happy for them. She did. Last she heard, there were more than six dozen Negros who lived in the Valley, and freedom meant something to them. Their little hollow proved it.
But sometimes Nettie thought the Valley Negros forgot about them up on the Mount. Someone looked to build something safe and real, had taken the time to round up all the Negros and pitched the idea of their own hollow, away from the whites. Someone had the gumption to do all that, and yet no one buggied up the Mount to spread the word. Nettie picked at a scab on her knee until it bled. The only reason she knew about it was because Mr. Robinson took the time to complain about Negros occupying so-called perfectly good land. Nettie wasn’t as child-minded as her brother Abe claimed her to be; she knew the Valley Negros couldn’t safely buggy through the whites’ town for the sake of a few Negros on the Mount. They didn’t have any obligation to her or her brother—they had to protect themselves. Yet Nettie couldn’t stop the sneering resentment that found her every time she visited the Point, the whining part of her that asked, ain’t I worth saving?
Bitterness sizzled in her stomach. Before Pappy had passed, he told Nettie that the best jobs were ones done by familiar hands. Nettie glanced at her hands—calloused palms from the pickaxe and bloody fingernails from scab picking—and pursed her lips. White folks were able to buggy down the Mount and across the Valley in less than four hours, but for Nettie it would cost more than half the day to walk down there and skirt around the whites’ town. Even if she wasn’t losing a day of pay, it wasn’t worth the risk of being caught where she shouldn’t be.
Someone grunted behind her. It was probably Abe, prepared to lecture Nettie about sitting so close to the Point. Abe was scared only of two things, whites and heights, and only one was justified. She didn’t turn or acknowledge him, just stared into the sun until her eyes burned. (Although she considered scooting closer to the Point out of spite.) Nettie worried that if she spoke, Abe would know what she was thinking and holler at her for even considering leaving the Mount. Luckily, Abe didn’t say anything either. Their sibling silence was punctuated by the call of a warbler, flying somewhere beneath the Point. Nettie tried not to think about the last time they were alone like this, standing over Pappy’s grave. She tried every day to be comfortable doing nothing with Abe, but it felt like her body forgot how to relax.
Nettie leaned back onto her hands in an attempt to figure it out and immediately recoiled. An uneven rock had dug into her palm and left a well of red. She forced a laugh, a halting sort of thing, to ease the embarrassment.
Abe grunted again, a squeaking ugly sound, and Nettie’s back straightened. No person made a sound like that. Her mind conjured images of the pale, disjointed limbs of an aderwa seizing her from behind to break her into bite-sized pieces. Fear wrapped tightly around her shoulders, and Nettie cursed her brother for his monstrous bedtime stories. There was no escaping an aderwa according to Abe, and each moment that passed taunted death. The warbler had flown away, and Nettie wished it would return to break the silence. She should turn around, should look at whatever beast had taken care to sneak up on her, but her body was too tense. The beast behind her stepped closer and its hooves echoed on the rock—wait. Hooves? Nettie fought the tension in her shoulders and turned, slow as slow, to look.
It was a goddamn pig. Nettie stared at its wide pink ears and black speckled legs, its bunched snout and barely-used eyes. With Nettie on the ground they were face-to-face, and when it grunted again, its hot breath warmed her dark skin. She smiled. Maybe Nettie was as child-minded as Abe said, to mistake a pig for a damn aderwa. It stepped forward again, curious, and Nettie held out her still-sore hand for it to sniff. None of the Negros on the Mount had any pigs, and there were no white families on this side of the mines. If no one claimed it, then she and Abe could keep it for themselves and begin to fill that sibling silence. Maybe even start a hollow of their own. Nettie realized she had mistaken Abe for a pig, and imagined his own wide nose and mine-squinted eyes. She couldn’t help it. She laughed.
And the pig, startled out of its curiosity and perhaps insulted that she didn’t find it frightening, screamed. It bucked her hand out of the way and charged before Nettie realized what she did wrong. The pig rammed her shoulder and knocked the laugh out of her chest. Her body hit the solid and familiar rock, but her head slammed against air. The Point. Panic pushed her towards the wider portion of rock, but the pig followed and shoved its snout underneath her legs. Aderwas didn’t possess things, were more human than spirit, but the pig was consumed by something. Whether madness or sickness or something else entirely, it drove the pig forward again and again, battering her legs so she wasn’t able to stand or even kick without fear of falling. Rocks cut into her hips as Nettie used her elbows to leverage herself into a stronger position. Just away from the edge, she thought as she pulled herself forward. Once I can sit up, I’ll skin this damn pig. But before Nettie could move again, the pig wiggled its snout underneath her legs.
“No,” she yelled, but the pig had already shoved her legs over the edge, and suddenly her own weight was pulling her over the Point. Her hands scratched for anything to help pull herself up while her legs kicked wildly, but there was nothing. Nothing above, and nothing below.
Nettie screamed for help, screamed until she realized no one was coming. No one would save her. The pig came around to her face, and when it sniffed her cheeks Nettie realized she was crying. Her throat tightened. Her arms were already losing strength, so the pig barely had to nudge her. Her arms gave out, and she did her best to grip the Point with her fingers—calloused and bloody—but it wouldn’t last. The tears were falling fast now, and snot bubbled her nose. She stared into the narrow eyes of the pig and wished with her whole child-mind that it had been Abe, come to scold her for straying from the mine. She would love to sit in sibling silence with him, no matter how uncomfortable it made her. No matter how much she regretted letting it become uncomfortable in the first place.
“Not like this,” she whispered, but the pig didn’t care. A cool breeze nudged her legs, and somewhere below a warbler called. Perhaps Abe’s fear of heights was justified, after all.
The pig grunted, that squeaking ugly sound, and Nettie fell.