Y Castell Siwgr
Translated into English by Mícheál Ó hAodha
'If he owns so much land in this country, why does he need more in Jamaica?'
She let her body sway to the music of the song, her legs swing to the melody. Dorcas was in her element – she was dancing.
“Hwp dyna fo
A chynffon buwch, a chynffon llo,
A chynffon Rhisiart Parry’r Go,
Hwp dyna fo ...”
Holding hands in formation, everyone danced the Maydance. Ribbons of colour weaving into each other, to Dorcas' delight. Why couldn’t every day be festival day? Waves of fiddle-sound soaring high, all of them dancing to the same beat, the dancers and the dance becoming as one. Everyone together, all winks, smiles and laughter. Nothing made Dorcas happier than dancing.
Hefin gave Dorcas’ waist a quick squeeze and stole a kiss when she wasn’t watching, then hopped back into place in the line. If Rhys had done this, it would’ve been a different story!
“Dorcas! This way! ”
The Maydance over, the dancers formed a long line and snakelike, they danced between the stalls. Not that the stallholders were too thrilled about this. Colour scarves and skirts like birds flying through the air.
"A song!" someone insisted, and the fun continued.
"Did you enjoy that?" Dorcas asked her friend.
"Of course! Even if it was nearly too much for me!"
Elsi was a small round dumpling of a girl, her cheeks red like apples.
"Phew…we'll have to give it a go again in a bit."
"Dorcas, it didn’t knock a stir out of you, did it?"
No way daughter, thought Dorcas. I’m a restless and lively soul and I’d dance and sing all night long.
“If it was a competition for who could dance the longest, Dorcas would definitely win” said Sara, and everyone agreed.
Rhys Fychan appeared with a jug of water, to quench their thirst. He smiled at Dorcas.
"I enjoyed watching you dance," he says, and Dorcas blushed from ear to ear.
"Thank you," she says, unable to look him in the eyes.
The friends sat on the grass and watched the bustle of the fair from a distance.
Lisa lay on her back in the grass, her head in Dorcas’ lap, Dorcas braiding her blonde hair.
"What are you doing Dorcas?" says Lisa.
"I’m weaving a crown of daisies in your hair."
"They won’t be long there but they’ll fall out again."
“If they stay in for a quarter of an hour, sure that’s enough,” Dorcas says, getting to her feet and examining her handiwork
"Hey! Look - a cock fight’s starting" says Hefin.
From over behind the backs of the crowd, Dorcas stood on her tip-toes, trying to see the cockfight.
There was nothing like the sight of two cocks fighting. The dominant cock held itself upright, in complete control of proceedings, then began circling its opponent. A sudden lunge at its opponent's neck and the fight was as good as over. Feathers flew everywhere, and blood oozed from the defeated cock’s neck. A moment later and it was stretched out in the mud and fading fast.
“Well, that was a right letdown. Two chickens would have fought better” one of the onlookers said.
“Pity some of the poor punters who put money on the game," someone else piped up.
Lisa put her arm through Dorcas’ and looped Elsi with the other.
"I've had a really great day," says Elsi, "and tonight...”
"I can look forward to my supper!" another pair exclaimed, laughing uncontrollably.
"Rascals" said Elsi, and she had to smile. That’s what friends were – the people who knew you better than anyone else.
At the ribbon stand, each girl bought a ribbon and a piece of lace to take home at the end of the night. It was the end of a fabulous day.
* * *
Later that night, Dorcas suddenly awoke. The sound of her little sister Mabli breathing next to her was the only sound. Through the small back-window, it was a bright moonlit night. She got up and went to the window to gaze at its radiance.
Ever since she was small, Dorcas was fascinated by the moon. In a strange way, that big white ball of light could transform the everyday world and make of it a fairytale. She longed to go outside for a walk. What secrets would reveal themselves in the darkness of night? If she saw the little people dancing in a circle, would she dare to join their dance, to follow them to the world beyond?
"What are you doing?" says Mabli somewhere between sleep and waking.
"Staring at the moon."
“Come back to bed.”
“I don’t feel like sleeping at all. I was thinking of going out for a walk in the moonlight. ”
Mabli would plead with her, and Dorcas' would give in. There might have been five years between them age-wise and Dorcas was very protective of her little sister and yet sometimes, you’d have been forgiven for wondering which of them was the eldest.
“You’re all excited still after the dance, Dorcas. Come here to me and give me a hug. ”
Dorcas returned to the comfort of their bed.
There was nothing more comforting than holding your sister in her arms. All your little worries disappeared.
"You're better now?" Mabli asked her sister.
"I'm warm again now anyway..."
Who did you dance with? ”
"Everyone ... but I got a smile from Rhys at one stage."
"He’s nice," said Mabli.
But Dorcas couldn’t sleep. Her parents had been very angry with her when she got home that night and it was still playing on her mind. She knew she was in the bad books the minute she stepped through the door.
They were still up when she got home, waiting for her, her mother busy around the hearth.
“Dorcas, you're finally home! Your father is not happy, ” and she knew straight away that she was trouble.
"But you knew I was going down to the Marian..."
"On the feastday..!" her father said.
“But…everybody went there.”
"And you probably danced."
“What have we told you about that?”
Dorcas stared down at her shoes, the same shoes that had danced so sweetly just a short while earlier. She was that kind of girl – there was no point in denying it - a girl who liked to dance. What was so bad about that anyway?
"Your dad's was worried about you," said her mother quietly.
“As it was festival day, I didn't see that there was much harm in it. It was just some fun. ”
Nobody said anything for a moment.
“Do you understand why dancing is bad, Dorcas? Why the Methodists consider it a sin? ”
"Yes, Dad," she replied, parrot-like in tone, then changed tack "Well, to be honest, no, I don’t really."
Her father sighed. This one was hard work, no doubt about it.
“Dancing itself is not a sin, but rather what it can lead to,” he replied, as if he addressing a small child. “You’re old enough to know what I mean, what we're talking about now... ”
Dorcas had no choice but to lower her head in silence.
“When the festivities become unrestrained and out of control, that’s when the Devil takes his place. He’s a wily foe and knows exactly how to play on our weaknesses and lusts. ”
Dorcas thought of the way Rhys had smiled at her earlier. Wasn’t it the most natural thing in the world?”
"I'm sorry, Father."
“We only have your best interests in mind, Dorcas. Good night. ”
"Good night," said Dorcas as she felt the tears well up.
It was a bitter end to what had been such a good day.
Running, running like the wind, her legs fast and strong, running to God know’s where…slower then faster again, her body leaning forward into the wind, feeling the freedom. Who cares where? Just running as far away as possible…escaping that crazy hell.
Run Ebony, run…She’s in terror but she doesn’t care anymore...her body could break into a thousand pieces and be scattered to the four winds. It doesn’t matter anymore because she’s lost everything now…everything’s gone. Any small hints of happiness slipped through her fingers long ago. They’ve long since disappeared…long-gone…
Barefoot, her graceful body moves to a rhythm all its own, across through the plantation fields, her soles on striking stones and hard ground. She feels the blood pumping through her, coursing through her…body and soul. The stink of smoke on the air makes breathing difficult. But there is nothing else. Run Ebony, run for your life. Just the traces of your feet left behind on the rough dry soil. Traces that soon disappear…traces of her passing.
As with her memory of what came before, this too is the best thing that can happen…because the less Ebony remembers of her young life thus far, the better by far…
A DIARY THAT ISN’T A DIARY
This will not be a real diary. I can't write. In truth, this is nothing like a diary. This is a record of my thoughts and feelings, and if I had paper or ink, and if I could write, maybe it would sound something like this...
But I have no materials to write with and no page on which to convey the words…
This record here may be nothing more than a bit of company, a whisper in the ear of a friend. Maybe this is what I crave foremost of all here - a friend the same age as me, someone I could share my hopes and fears with. I can divide my life into three parts - the beginning, my life with Hagar, and my life after Hagar was gone. I may be only fifteen years old but I feel like I've already lived my life three times over. I hope there is a life after this one. When this time comes - as it did for Hagar - and I am certain that they - the slavemasters - will prevail in the end, I like to think there is another world waiting for us after this one, and that one day I can look back on this life and thank God that I managed to survive.
IN THE FIELDS
We were out in the fields cutting cane again, and the heat was brutal. I think we can survive the heat if we aren’t physically abused too much. But seeing other workers here being abused daily is a torment and very difficult to cope with. Watching Sancho being whipped this morning in our presence - for doing nothing - disturbed all of us. At first we put our heads down and pretended nothing was happening. And the Vulture must have noticed, because he snarled and flogged Sancho even more viciously than before. Because we were afraid, none of us shouted out in protest or challenged the Vulture, we just stared at him with cold hatred instead because next moment he was roaring between each stroke of the whip,
“What are you lot looking at? On with your work you pigs!”
No one moved however. It was as if we were rooted to the ground - standing still and staring…What else could we do? The Vulture pulled back from us momentarily as if feeling our hatred on his skin. There was no let-up in his whipping of Sancho however - not until he’d left him bloodied and unconscious on the ground.
"That’s enough," blurted out Roger, the eldest person among us.
“That's enough. ”
"What did you say?" said the Vulture, shocked that someone had dared to speak.
"Enough," we all said in unison. The Vulture turned to Roger.
"Enough ... enough ... enough," everyone murmured as one, in a low chant. Roger bravely stared into the Vulture’s face head-on but suddenly he too felt the lash of the whip. The Vulture exploded in anger and lashed him across the back and the face, and then across the legs until Roger fell to the ground also. The chanting fell quiet and the Vulture looked at us menacingly.
“I'm the only one who’s allowed say 'Enough' around here - understood? ” and walked away. No one uttered a word. Once he was out of sight, we lifted Roger off the ground and the men dragged poor Sancho's limp and unconscious body away.
Shortlisted in the Tír na nÓg Awards 2021
When circumstances compel Dorcas – a farmgirl in nineteenth-century Wales – to take up employment as a maid in Lord Penrhyn’s castle, her story becomes entwined with Eboni’s, an enslaved young woman in the imperial sugar plantations of Jamaica. Through the terrible pain they suffer at the hands of respective ‘masters’ – and their ultimate will to survive – this timely, historical novel throws light on the lives of two women cast into the long shadow of Penrhyn Castle, and the greed and cruelty which built it.
A novel of two halves, and of two voices underrepresented in Welsh writing and history, it is left largely to the reader to draw connections between these women’s experiences: to look beyond, as Dorcas does, idealised Jamaican scenes in paintings hanging on castle walls, and to question the legacy of the ineffable Lord Penrhyn – slate industry magnate, plantation owner – whose presence is felt though never seen throughout the book. Informed by thorough research and written with Angharad Tomos’ characteristic readability, the book’s accessibility belies its painful subject matter and the questions around race and social justice that Wales, and the world, must continue to face.
An established, award-winning author and prominent language activist, Tomos succeeds in Y Castell Siwgr to open to young readers and adults alike one of the darkest passages in Welsh history, and to do so with humanity and compassion.
“Given the unfortunate truth that racism is still alive and well in 2020, and that we live in the age of campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter, Y Castell Siwgr is an extremely timely novel. Undoubtedly, I believe this novel will be an unique and worthy champion to educate about racism, slavery, and their connection to Wales. This novel should be read carefully and in detail, and shared widely. [...] This is undoubtedly a credible and powerful novel which succeeds in telling a historical story that’s as important as ever.”
Gareth Evans-Jones, Gwales.com
"This novel takes us to challenging new territory with the story of two young girls, Dorcas and Yamba, and although the novel is in two parts, the links between them strengthen the narrative… This volume is a very important contribution to Welsh literature and will appeal to both young people and adults."
Adjudicator, Tir na n-Og Awards 2021