3 A Death in the Family. Where God Stands. Ten Thousand Combs.
Loretta, Caldonia Townsend’s maid, came down from the house about sunrise the next morning and opened Moses’s cabin door after one knock and told him their master Henry was dead. He scratched at his whiskers. “How long?” he said. “Last night,” she answered. Priscilla, Moses’s wife, came up behind him, her hand to her mouth. “Oh, Lord,” she said. “ Massa dead.” She turned to her son who was sitting before the hearth, eating cornbread and gravy. “There been death in the family,” she said to the boy. He considered his mother for a second or so then went back to eating. Something told the boy that his mother, with the dead master on her mind, might not eat her portion, so he took her food as well.
”Loretta, whas gonna happen to all us now?” Moses said, thinking that her being up in the house gave her more to know. Priscilla came up closer behind her husband and Loretta could see the third of her body that wasn’t obscured by the man.
“I don’t know, Moses. We just have to wait and see.” The three of them were thinking of the six slaves of the white family just down the road apiece, the six slaves who were so close by they were like family to the slaves at Henry’s place. Those six were good workers and had made their owner quite wealthy in a small Manchester County kind of way. Loretta said, “We just gon have to wait and see which way the wind gon blow.” The white man down the road had died four months ago, and at first the widow, his third wife and mother to his two children from his second marriage, told the slaves they would not be sold off. But before the white man could even get settled in his grave, his widow had sold them to finance a new life in Europe, which she knew about from two fanciful picture books she had treasured and hidden for years in the chimney from her husband. One of the books showed what an artist claimed were the Paris fashions of 1825. There were nearly thirty years separating the year of the fashion picture book and the year the widow finally got to France, so all the material of her dreams, the fashions of 1825, was no doubt out of style by the time she arrived. White people said she took the dead white man’s two children with her to the new life in Paris, but colored people, slave and free, said that didn’t happen, that the woman had sold the children once she was safely out of Virginia. Negroes said that somewhere in the world, known or unknown, someone might not think twice about buying two happy white children with plump cheeks and able to write and sing like angels and do basic ciphering.
Priscilla now stepped even closer to her husband, and most of the third of her that Loretta could see disappeared. Priscilla said, “I would hate to go from Massa Henry’s place. I would hate all that not knowin again where in the world I was.” The six slaves down the road-along with the animals and the land and its equipment-had brought the widow just a tad over $11,316, which supplemented the $1,567.39 her husband had in the bank and buried in the backyard. Only the land remained where it had always been after the widow sold everything; all else, including the slaves, was scattered to the farthest winds. No two slaves ended up together. Five of them were related by blood. One, Judy, was married to a young man owned by Henry Townsend. Another, Melanie, not seven months old, was just getting used to solid food, had begun to crawl and so had to be watched every waking second. Nicknamed “Miss Frisky” by her maternal uncle, the baby Melanie-her parents bragged to any soul who would listen-had the spirit of three babies and would crawl and crawl all over the world until someone picked her up to stop her or until her hands and knees wore out.
Moses scratched his whiskers again, and things were so quiet beyond the crackle of the fire in his hearth that someone passing in the lane could have heard his fingers going over his whiskers. Right then, Elias came out of his cabin next door, carrying an empty water bucket. He nodded “Morning” to the people in Moses’s doorway, but no words were spoken by anyone. Loretta nodded “Morning” to Elias; she depended on Moses to tell him about the death of Henry.
“Moses,” Loretta said after Elias had passed, “just about everything can wait till Henry is safe in his grave, till we put the master down. You hear what I’m sayin?”
“I hear you,” Moses said. “I hear you good.”
Loretta said, “Is there any trouble down here from anyone? Is there any trouble from somebody that might spoil that man’s trip to the grave?”
“You best tell her bout Stamford,” Priscilla said. Stamford was forty years old, desperate for any young woman he could get a hold of. A man had told Stamford when he was no more than twelve that the way for a man to survive slavery was to always have a young woman, “young stuff” was how the man put it. Without “young stuff,” a man was destined to die a horrible death in slavery. “Don’t you be like that, Stamford,” the man had said more than once. “Keep your young stuff close by.”
“Whas the problem with Stamford?” Loretta said, her eyes on the top of Priscilla’s head, which was now just about all she could see of her. “Is it Gloria again?” Gloria was Stamford ’s latest young stuff.
Moses said, “That might be finished. I think she kicked him out day fore yestiddy. Stamford probably out there with nobody and he ain’t a happy man when that happens.”
“Please check him, Moses,” Loretta said. “Don’t let him start up somethin. We can deal with Stamford after the funeral. I don’t want a lot of Who-Shot-John when we start puttin Henry in the ground.”
“I’ll check him,” Moses said, “or I’ll break him in two tryin.”
“No breakin, Moses.” Loretta looked down the lane to where a little girl was standing with her hands on her hips, staring at her. Loretta knew her name, had helped the girl into the world. Say good mornin to me, honey chile. Say good mornin to Loretta. “No breakin, just checkin. And I hope you ain’t wrong about what trouble Stamford is, the way you was wrong bout Elias.”
“Elias still trouble to my way a thinkin,” Moses said.
Loretta looked from the girl and said to Moses, “Mistress Caldonia and Miss Fern want you get evbody to come out front maybe in another hour, after breakfast,” and she looked to find that the little girl was gone. Where the girl had stood was where the sun would first come over the horizon. “Go tell em Henry dead.” He nodded. He was barefoot. They both knew where he was on the pole of who was and was not important on the Townsend plantation, so he did not tarry when she told him to do something. Once, not long after Henry had purchased her for his bride, Loretta had spent weeks thinking Moses might make a good man for her, a tolerable match, but one morning she had awakened to hear him out somewhere screaming at someone or something. A scream so loud all the morning birds quieted down. He went on screaming until Henry came out and told him to hush. That morning he screamed was so cold she hurt her hand cracking the water in the face basin. And as she put on her clothes, wishing for warmth, she knew that he would not do. Loretta turned from Moses and Priscilla now and stepped away from their door.
Heading back to the house, she met Elias, carrying a bucket of water from the well.
“Tell Celeste that Henry be dead,” she said.
“You stick a needle in him to make sure?” Elias said. “You poke him and poke him to make sure?”
At first, before remembering everything, she did not understand what he could mean by that and her mouth opened in a small O of surprise. Once upon a time he would have been a better man for her. Loretta looked down at the water, at the way it came right up to the lip of the bucket. There was none spilled behind him, which said something about the way he moved through the world, even with his head unbalanced with part of one ear gone. “He dead, thas all,” Loretta said. “I know dead when I see it, Elias. It don’t put on a face to make him look like nothin else but dead. Master dead.” It was said by many a slave that a servant’s feeling about a master could be discerned on any given day by whether the slave called him “Master,” “Marse,” or “ Massa.” “Marse” could sound like a curse if the right woman said it in just the right way. Alice, for one, said “ Massa,” but it came up out of her like a call from a tomb. “Master dead,” Loretta said again, and it struck Elias that he had never heard her say “Master” before. He felt compelled to repeat her words, as if to make it so once and for all. “Master dead.” She went around him and disappeared into the fog, which the sun was fast burning off. Back in the house, she stood at the kitchen window and watched the world come up out of the fog. There was no need to tell Zeddie, the cook, to fix breakfast or to tell Zeddie’s man Bennett to fix the fire. For the moment, death was giving all the orders. All was quiet. Loretta was thirty-two years old. When the day came when all the slaves were slaves no more and decided that they should choose a last name for themselves, she would not pick Townsend or Blueberry or Freeman or Godspeed or Badmemory, as many would. She would choose nothing, and she stayed with nothing even when she decided to marry.
Moses made to go down the lane of cabins, eight on one side of the lane and eight on the other side, laid out just the way Henry Townsend had seen them in a dream when he was twenty-one years old and without a slave to his name. Moses thought at first he might send his son or another child to tell all to gather in the yard of the house, but as he stepped out of his cabin and saw the sun-filled fog fraying away to nothing, he realized that this was one of the last things he would ever do for his master. Not knowing that Loretta had already told him, he went to Elias’s cabin first, the one next to his own, and Celeste, Elias’s wife, came to the door. Whether she sensed something or was about to take in some morning air, Celeste opened the door before he could knock. “Master dead,” Moses said. “So it is,” she said and stuck her head out the door just so and looked up toward the house, as if there might be a sign on the verandah announcing the news. “We gotta get up to the house,” Moses said. “Elias,” Celeste said to her husband, turning around to face him. “That Henry gone.” She could tell in his eyes that he knew already and had just not bothered to tell her. The smallest smudge of dirt on one of his children’s cheeks was important, but the death of his master was no more than the death of a fly in a foreign place he had never even heard of. Celeste had no love for Henry either, but death had taken all his power and now she could afford a little bit of charity. “That Henry be dead. Let God be kind,” she said and limped to Elias, to her three children playing on a pallet. The limp was a horrible one, and it pained most humans to see because they thought it must pain her to move. They shot animals for far less, Moses once thought after Henry brought her home. But she was a good worker, limp or no limp.
Moses went back and forth across the lane and told all. All of the cabins, save one, were occupied. A man, Peter, had died in that one and his widow, May, had abandoned it, to give Peter’s spirit time and space to prepare to go home. Before Moses had reached the last cabin on his side of the lane, the one Alice, whom he called the Night Walker, shared with Delphie and her daughter Cassandra, the slaves were filling the lane. A few women had cried, remembering the way Henry smiled or how he would join them in singing or thinking that the death of anyone, good or bad, master or not, cut down one more tree in the life forest that shielded them from their own death; but most said or did nothing. Their world had changed but they could not yet understand how. A black man had owned them, a strange thing for many in that world, and now that he was dead, maybe a white man would buy them, which was not as strange. No matter what, though, the sun would come up on them tomorrow, followed by the moon, and dogs would chase their own tails and the sky would remain just out of reach. “I didn’t sleep well,” one man across the lane from Elias said to his next-door neighbor. “Well, I know I sure did,” the neighbor said. “I slept like they was payin me to, slept anough for three white women without a care in the world.” “Well,” the first man said, “sounds like you gotta hold a some of my sleep. Better give it back. Better give it back fore you wear out my sleep usin it. Give it back.” “Oh, I will,” the neighbor said, laughing, inspecting loose threads on his overalls. “I sure will. Soon as I’m finished. Meantime, I’m gonna use it again tonight. Come for it in the mornin.” They both laughed.
It was often the case that Alice, the Night Walker, would be standing just inside her door when Moses opened it each morning, dressed and ready to work, as if she had been standing at the door waiting for him all night. She was waiting now and she was smiling, the same smile she had for everything-from the death of a neighbor’s baby to the four oranges Henry and Caldonia gave each slave on Christmas morning. “Baby dead baby dead baby dead,” she would chant. “Christmas oranges Christmas oranges Christmas oranges in the mornin.”
“I don’t want no foolishness from you, woman,” Moses said now. He turned and saw Stamford, the seeker of young stuff, in the middle of the crowd, eyeing Gloria, who didn’t want to be his young stuff anymore. “Master dead,” Moses said to Alice. “No foolishness this mornin, woman.” Alice went on smiling. “Master dead master dead master be dead.” “Hush, girl,” Moses said. “Respect the dead the way they need to be respected.” The story went that mule that kicked Alice in the head when she was years younger had been a one-eyed mule, but no more ornery for being one-eyed than any other mule. The story continued that when she regained her senses, moments after the kick, she slapped the mule and called it a dirty name. This was before Henry bought her for $228 and two bushels of apples from the estate of a white man who had no heirs and who was afraid of mules. It was the dirty name that made everyone know she had gone down the crazy road, because before the kick Alice had been known as a sweet girl of sweet words.
“Moses?” Delphie came up behind Alice, her cabin mate.
“Master dead,” Moses said. “You and Cassie get Alice and come up with evbody to the house.”
“Master dead, Moses?” Delphie said. “Whas gonna come of us?” She would be forty-four in a few months and had already lived longer than any ancestor she had ever had, every single one of them. She did not know this history of eons about herself; there was only the feeling in her bones that for some time she had been venturing into a place unknown, and that feeling made her hope for a road that would not cut too deeply into her feet and her soul. To live to see fifty was a wish she was beginning to dare to have. My name is Delphie and I’m fifty years old. Count em. Start at one and count em. One Delphie, two Delphie, three Delphie… Before she had reached forty her only wish was that the world would be kind to her daughter, Cassandra, or Cassie as some people called her. Now a second wish was beginning to creep up on her, and she was afraid that wishing to see fifty might make God turn his back on the first wish about her daughter. God might say: Make up your mind about them wishes, Delphie, I ain’t got all day and you ain’t got but one wish comin to you. Delphie said to Moses, “We gon leave here? Be sold off?”
“I don’t know no more than it’s mornin time and that master dead,” Moses said. “You and Cassie get Alice and come on up to the house like evbody else.”
“Master dead master dead master be dead,” Alice chanted.
“We comin,” Delphie said. She looked at her daughter, and Cassandra hunched her shoulders. The two had been purchased together, one of the few times God had answered Delphie’s prayers. She wondered now if she should pray for Henry’s soul. It came to her as she stepped off toward the house that a prayer for a man who was one of God’s children would not be wasted. She prayed every day that her food would stay on her stomach, prayers that were dozens of words long. So ten words for the soul of Henry Townsend could be spared. Delphie saw Stamford two people behind Gloria, the woman who did not want him anymore. If he touches Gloria, Delphie thought, I will strike that fool man down right out here in the open.
There was a crowd in the lane now and Moses made his slow way through it, through the uncertainty of twenty-nine adults and children. At his cabin he found Priscilla and Jamie his son, who was playing hand games with Tessie, the oldest child of Elias and Celeste. Moses stepped off toward the house and all the rest followed, the children skipping along the way they did on Sundays, their day off. All the children, except those in their parents’ arms, were in front of all the adults. Everyone found Caldonia on the verandah, and with her were Augustus and Mildred, Henry’s parents, on one side and on the other side was Fern Elston the teacher, who was holding Caldonia’s hand. Augustus and Mildred had arrived less than an hour before. Behind Caldonia were her mother and twin brother. Loretta the maid was in the doorway and behind her stood Zeddie the cook and Bennett, her man. The fog was gone and the day was once more moving toward beautiful.
Caldonia stepped to the edge of the verandah and raised her head for the first time since she had walked out her front door. She was wearing the black mourning dress and the veil that her mother had brought with her. The sun was full in her face but she did not shade her eyes. She had been crying before she came through the door, and she knew that the tears would soon come back so she wanted to hurry to get at least a few words out. Fern put one arm around Caldonia and Caldonia raised her veil.
“You know now that our Henry has left us,” she said to her slaves. “Left us for good, left us for heaven. Pray for him. Give him all your prayers. He cared about you all, and I have no less care than he did. I have no less love.” She had not considered beforehand what she would say. Every word was not original, was part of something she had heard somewhere else, something her father may have told her as a bedtime story, something Fern Elston may have long ago put into Caldonia’s head and the heads of dozens of other students. Caldonia said to the slaves, “Please do not worry yourselves. I am here and I will not be going anywhere. And you will be with me. We will be together in all of this. God stands with us. God will give us many days, good and bright days, good and joyful days. Your master had work to do, your master wanted better things for you and your children and this world, and I want them for you as well. Please do not worry. God stands with us.” Something she had read in a book, written by a white man in a different time and place. Henry had always said that he wanted to be a better master than any white man he had ever known. He did not understand that the kind of world he wanted to create was doomed before he had even spoken the first syllable of the word master.
Caldonia faltered and began crying and Augustus her father-in-law took her into his arms, and then, not long after that, he put her in her brother’s arms and her brother led her into the house, followed by her mother and Fern Elston and Loretta.
Augustus came down the steps and Mildred came after him. They knew all that was in the hearts of the slaves, they knew all that they were thinking. The slaves came to them, wordless. Augustus had come down not to accept their condolences but because he knew now, after hearing Caldonia speak, that the death of his son would not set them free. He knew that not one of them had ever believed that death would free them-that was not the benevolent way their world moved through the universe. But he himself had believed, had hoped from the moment of the knock at his door at two that morning. “Augustus, I’m sorry, but Mistress say to say to you that Master Henry dead,” Bennett had said, holding his pass in one hand and the lantern in the other so his face might be seen in the darkness. Augustus had believed in Caldonia, had always believed in her, having seen from the beginning a light in her that had failed in his own son born into slavery. But the light was not in her words. So he and Mildred came down the steps to offer their own condolences. They went through the crowd, hugging men and women, kissing the faces of the children, for they had come to know them over the years.
It was before they reached the end of the crowd that William Robbins came up to the house in a surrey driven by his son Louis. Louis and Caldonia and her twin brother Calvin had been schoolmates, all taught by Fern. Robbins sat in the back seat with Dora, Louis’s sister, another of Caldonia’s schoolmates. Robbins got out of the surrey and went around and helped Dora out. None of the slaves moved; with a black master and mistress, a white man was now a day-to-day rarity for many of them. Robbins took off his hat and went to the steps and up to the door and his children followed. Augustus watched the white man all the way. Robbins had not once looked around, but at the door, a storm went off in his head and it made him turn around. “Sir?” his son Louis said. “Sir?” Robbins came to the end of the verandah and looked down at everybody. “What have I told you?” he asked the assembly. “Have I not told yall?” Dora asked her father what was wrong. Except for the skin a shade and a half darker and the differences in their age, Dora was the very image of the daughter Robbins had with his white wife. “What have I told yall?”
A wind, gentle but insistent, drifted through Robbins’s head and the storm quieted, and in a moment or so he raised a hand in greeting to the crowd. The people did not react. Robbins knew something had happened in the minute just gone by but he could not know what, could not know in what way he may have disgraced himself, even before a passel of slaves. He remembered now that he was there because a man he had cared about was dead. Henry, good Henry, was dead. Dora came behind her father and put her hand softly on his shoulder. “Let’s go inside now,” she said.
Robbins turned and opened Caldonia’s door without knocking. His two children followed. Calvin came out of the house and went down to everyone to say that Caldonia wanted no one working that day or the next day, when the funeral was planned. “Moses,” he said, “if anyone needs anything, just let me know.” He meant whatever anyone needed to make a coffin and grave for Henry. Stamford, trying to impress the woman who did not want him anymore, made a show of shaking Calvin’s hand and saying he was sorry to hear about poor Master Henry. Calvin nodded. Calvin wanted to stay on down there with them but he feared that he would not be welcome the way Mildred and Augustus were. He and his mother had thirteen slaves to their names, but he was not a happy young man. Whenever he talked to her about freeing them, as he often did, Maude his mother would call them his legacy and say that people with all their faculties did not sell off their legacies.
No other slave came to Calvin and he made to go away. Augustus said to his back, “Tell Caldonia we be back up directly.” Calvin nodded again and began walking to the house. His father had died a slow death three years before, shriveling and drying up like a leaf in a rainless December, and Calvin always suspected that his mother had poisoned him because his father had been planning to free all their slaves, their legacy. “Sweet Maude, I want to go home to God with a clean mind,” Calvin’s father kept saying. After his father’s death, Calvin stayed on with his mother, in their house, surrounded by the legacy he did not want, because Maude told him she, too, was not long for this world. He stayed also because he wanted to be close to Louis, William Robbins’s son, whom Calvin loved but who could never love Calvin back. Calvin now walked away from the gathering of slaves and Augustus and Mildred and reached the top of the stairs and stopped, stood there for a long time, only two feet or so from the door.
The slaves and Mildred and Augustus went down to the lane to the cabins. Even now with him gone, especially now, Mildred and Augustus had no plans to stay in the house their son and his slave had built. They would stay in the cabin they had just left only days before, after Henry had assured them that he was getting well.
The slaves Henry Townsend left his wife were thirteen women, eleven men, and nine children. The adults included the house servants Loretta, Zeddie, and Bennett, who lived and worked in the house. At any one time some adults and children might be working in the house, depending upon the tasks that needed to be done and whether they might be needed in the fields. As the crowd made its way back down to the lane, some of the children were at the front, and at the head of those children was Elias and Celeste’s oldest, Tessie. She began skipping but an adult told her that a human being had died and skipping should be left off to another day. Tessie would soon be six years old and being the child of her parents that she was, she listened and stopped skipping. Tessie would live to be ninety-seven years old, and the doll her father was making for her would be with her until her last hour. She and the doll, long missing the corn- silk hair Elias her father had put on it, would outlive two of her children, and the doll would outlive her. Beside Tessie that day going back down to the lane was Jamie, the son of Priscilla and Moses the overseer. The boy leaned toward mischief and he was the fattest slave child in four counties, eight years old and the best friend of Tessie. Jamie always talked about him and Tessie marrying one day but that was never to be.
Five-year-old Grant, the oldest of Tessie’s brothers, held her hand as they went down to the lane. Grant and another boy in the lane, Boyd, also five, had been plagued by identical nightmares for weeks. What Grant dreamed one night, Boyd would dream the next. And then, days later, the reverse would happen, and Boyd’s dream would go across the lane and settle into Grant’s dreaming head. “You just be tryin to do what I be doin,” they teased each other under the safety of the sun. They were both terrified of going to sleep but they had found a strange enjoyment in comparing the dreams, remembering and sharing some detail that the other boy may have forgotten. “You see that big giant man in the blue hat comin at you?” “Whatn’t blue atall. Was all yellow.” “Well, I saw blue.” “You saw wrong.” In recent days the nightmares had eased off, and there was talk that with the coming of fall, the dreams would end altogether. Elias carried their third child, Ellwood, thirteen months. Celeste limped beside her husband. She was three months pregnant with their fourth child.
Two other children at the head of the crowd that day were three-year-old twins, Caldonia and Henry. The twins had had a bad spell the year before, seized for nearly two weeks by a paralyzing and feverish malady that the white doctor could not understand and so could not cure. He did recommend that the whole plantation be quarantined and John Skiffington, the sheriff, used his patrollers to make sure that was done. Each day and night of the children’s illness Caldonia was with them, leaving only to go up to the house to change clothes. Finally, Delphie, who knew something about roots, told the mother of the twins to have them sleep with the tops of their heads touching, and in two days the children were up and about. Delphie surmised that a bond had been created while the twins were in the womb and that that bond had been cut to their detriment with their births. Only sleeping head-to-head could repair that bond, making them ready for the rest of their lives together. The twins would live to be eighty-eight years old. Caldonia would die first, and though her brother Henry had a good and happy life with a good wife and many offspring with their offspring, he decided to follow his sister. “She’s never led me wrong in all this time,” he said to his best friend over drinks the night before he decided to up and die. “I don’t think she’ll lead me wrong this one last time.”
Also at the head of the crowd were Delores, seven years old, and her brother Patrick, three years younger. Delores would live to be ninety-five years old, but her brother would die when he was forty-seven, shot three times by a man as Patrick came out of the man’s bedroom window after being with the man’s wife. The night Patrick was killed he had had a choice-go down to the bottom and spend the night playing cards or go through that man’s bedroom window where the wife was waiting, all wet and hungry and everything. “I need what you got, P Patrick,” the wife had said to him earlier that day. “I need it bad.” The cards had not been falling right for Patrick that week. He had already lost $53 and owed one evil man $11 more, so he thought he would have better luck with that man’s wife. “Give me what you got, P Patrick.”
Augustus and Mildred would again stay in the cabin they had been in when they visited during Henry’s illness. Peter and his wife May had lived in that cabin until about five weeks before when two horses, frightened by something in the barn only they could see, ran Peter over in their effort to escape. May’s child was now seven months old and as everyone walked back down to the lane, the child was carried by a neighbor next door to where Peter and May had lived. Peter, after being trampled by the horses, had been carried back to his cabin and that was where he died. May had abandoned the cabin for the requisite month to give Peter’s spirit time to say good-bye and then find its way to heaven. But after that month she had not returned. May, known for her stubbornness, would decide the day after Henry Townsend’s funeral that Mildred and Augustus’s being in the cabin a second time was Peter’s way of telling her that he was home and settled in. She returned to the cabin
Though there was to be no work in the fields that day, there were things to be done if the world was to go on. Milking cows, a mule to be shod, eggs collected, a plow to be repaired, cabins to be swept if more dust and dirt were not to join what was already inside. And the bodies of slaves and animals required nourishment and fires needed tending to. They, all of them except the children under five, went to work, having decided that food could wait until the chores of the morning were done since they had the rest of the day to themselves. Mildred and Augustus shared in all the work, as they were not strangers to labor.
About noon Calvin and Louis came down and told Moses the grave should be dug. There was a good-sized plot at the back and off to the left of the house where Henry had planned for himself, Caldonia and their generations to be buried. It was on the same piece of land where slaves were buried, but separate, the way white slaveowners did it. The slave cemetery was nearly empty of adults, unlike the generations of men and women who were in other slave cemeteries in Manchester County. Henry Townsend had not been a master long enough for his adult slaves to die and populate the cemetery. In that slave cemetery there was Peter, the man run over by the horses, and there was Sadie, a fairly new purchase by Henry at the time of her death. A tall woman of forty who, five years before, fell asleep on an empty stomach after fourteen hours in the field and never woke up. Beside Peter in death, she had been mostly alone in life, owing perhaps to her newness to the plantation. No husband, though she had lain twice with a man from another plantation. That man’s master, a white man of five slaves to his name, allowed the slave to come to Sadie’s funeral, though he warned Andy that if the funeral went on too long, as nigger funerals sometimes did, Andy was to step away and come straight back home. He wrote Andy a pass that expired at two o’clock in the afternoon. There were ten infants in the slave cemetery, five girls, five boys, only two of them related; none had seen their second year of life. No two had died of the same thing. An inability to digest even mother’s milk, an infection from a burn from a flying ember, a silent, unexplained death during the night as if not to disturb her mother’s sleep. One had died strapped to his mother’s back as the woman worked in the fields, two days before the end of harvest, the day Loretta the maid and Caldonia the mistress were away and Zeddie the cook took sick and was unable to look after the baby. The only child over two years in the cemetery was twelve-year-old Luke, a gangly boy of a sweet nature, dead of hard work on a farm to which he had been rented for $2 a week. A boy Elias and Celeste had loved. Henry had Luke’s mother brought in for the funeral from two counties over, but no one could find his father. Both cemeteries were on a rise, both guarded by trees, some apple, some dogwoods, a stunning magnolia, and some trees no one could make head or tail of. The cemeteries were separated by a hop, skip and a jump.
Calvin, Caldonia’s twin, dug into the ground first, dug down more than a foot and came up and gave the shovel to Louis. He, like Calvin, was not a man used to hard labor, but that was not obvious from the way he worked. Louis handed the shovel over to Augustus, who worked until Calvin told him he had done real good and that he might want to give the shovel to Moses. Once Moses was in the hole, William Robbins came out of the house followed by Dora, his daughter. Robbins stood without words at the site for nearly half an hour and watched the men work and then he turned and went back into the house with Dora. After the funeral the next day, he would not see the plantation again until the day Louis married Caldonia. Up in the house, as the men worked on the grave, Henry Townsend had been washed and dressed and laid out on his cooling board in the parlor.
Elias was next and he dug down and then he gave the shovel to Stamford, forty years old. Stamford, in addition to chasing young women, could be a most disagreeable man if he was idle too long. When he was honest with himself, Stamford knew his days with Gloria were at an end. He was now studying on Cassandra, Alice’s cabin mate, but Cassandra had already told him once she wouldn’t go with an old dog full of fleas. Gloria, twenty-six, loved biscuits, loved to open them hot and soak them in molasses when she could get it. Stamford knew how to cook biscuits the way she liked, but that had not been enough. They had fought all the time; once it was an all-night battle and they, bruised and sore, were unfit for the fields the next day. After a week of the fighting, Henry had Moses separate them. It was a good thing, people said, because in another week Gloria would have killed him. Stamford had a plan to make Cassandra like him, the third plan that summer. That day weeks later when Stamford would see the crows fall dead from the tree, before he himself walked out toward death, he would say good-bye to Gloria and he would say good-bye to Cassandra, to all that good young stuff that the man had once advised him would allow him to survive slavery. “Without all that young stuff, Stamford, you will die a slave. And it will not be a pretty die.”
When Stamford was done, Calvin took the shovel back and before long six feet were finally ready for Henry. The men then collected the lumber from the wagon Augustus and Mildred came in and took it to the second barn, where they made Henry a coffin. The wood was pine, which just about everybody in Manchester County, in Virginia, was buried in. The slaves sometimes got pine, if they had always done the right thing and their masters thought they deserved it.
Sometime after two o’clock William Robbins left with Dora and Louis, he off to his plantation and they off to the house they shared with their mother outside the town. The rest of the day wore itself away and nothing good and nothing bad happened.
Alice, the woman who wandered in the night, had started being restless way long before bedtime. “Just leave her be,” Cassandra kept telling her mother, Delphie, who wanted some way to calm Alice. The three shared their cabin with an orphaned teenage girl. In the end, leaving her alone was just what Delphie had to do and she shook her head as Alice went out the door. Alice had a minor cut on her foot from walking all about the night before, the night her master died. But the cut did not prevent her now from strolling up and down the lane, chanting, “Master dead master dead master be dead.” Moses did not go out that evening to be alone with himself in the woods, but before he went to bed he did go about the plantation to make certain all was well. He told Alice to hush three times and that last time she did, choosing then to only pace up and down the lane. If Augustus and Mildred in May’s cabin heard Alice chanting about their dead son they made nothing of it. Finally, Alice sauntered off toward the smokehouse.
Caldonia and Calvin and their mother came down to the lane once that evening to ask Augustus and Mildred to please come and stay in the house. They declined, as they had twice before that day. Mildred might have gone up, had she not been with Augustus. Fern Elston came down to the lane as well, the first time she had ever done so. Before now, before she had seen off the gambler with one leg weeks earlier, she had always stayed in the house on her visits, preferring not to mingle with “any slave that was not house broken,” as she put it. But the gambler who lost his leg would change everything and she was never to see the world the same way again. That evening, as she walked behind Caldonia, Maude and Calvin, she thought that the gambler, Jebediah Dickinson, should have been more than halfway to Baltimore by now, if he made it, if the horse and wagon she gave him held up. In a different world, she had been thinking since two mornings after he left, she might have found something with him, one leg or not, dark skin or not. She would not even have had to teach him how to read and write, because he came knowing that already. I have been a dutiful wife.
Moses and Priscilla came out of their cabin and joined the small group as they went down the lane. The evening smoke of supper fires hung thick all about them. Caldonia, still veiled, knocked at a few doors and poked her head inside one or two cabins to ask if there was anything anyone needed. All the children liked her, Mistress Caldonia. Her mother Maude had been saying all day that she had to take care of her “legacy,” but as Caldonia went about what Henry, following William Robbins, had called “the business of mastering,” she did not think she was doing anything more than escaping for a spell from a house that was twice as large as it had been the day before. Moses spoke to her all the while as she walked, letting her know what he and the slaves would be doing when they returned to work, what his tasting of the soil had told him about the crops. His droning on and on was a bit soothing, far more than Calvin’s hand on her arm or the children’s smiling up at her. His talking told her in some odd way that one day the pain would at least be cut in half.
At the end of the lane, they turned around. Fern stopped and stood alone and looked out beyond the lane, to the fields. When she turned back, Alice was in front of her, telling Fern that the master was dead. “I know,” Fern said. “We know that.” “Then why ain’t you ready?” Alice said. Fern looked back toward the fields and when she turned around again, Alice had gone away. In four generations, Fern’s family had managed to produce people who could easily pass for white. “Marry nothing beneath you,” her mother always said, meaning no one darker than herself, and Fern had not. Her mother would not have approved of the gambler who lost a leg. “Human beings should never go back. They should always go forward.” Some of Fern’s people had gone white, disappearing across the color line and never looking back. She saw some of her kin now and again, a sister, cousins, in Richmond, in Petersburg, carriaging away with fine horses down the street, and she would nod to them and they would nod to her and go on about their business. Fern’s husband was also a gambler and he was slowly gambling away their little fortune but there was nothing she could do about it. The gambler with the one leg was gone. She had never known anyone to go to Baltimore and return to tell her about it. I have been a dutiful wife.
The lane quieted after they returned to the house. Moses and Priscilla went into their cabin and shut the door for the night. Alice the wanderer came back to the lane, walking up and down. In their cabin, Augustus and Mildred lay down and held each other. One of them started talking-they would not remember which one it was-all about Henry, from his birth to his death, starting a weeks-long project of recalling all that they could about their son. If they had known how to read and write, they could have put it all in a book of two thousand pages. Up in the house, Calvin lit another set of candles, preparing to sit the night with Henry. As Calvin lit the candles, Loretta covered Henry’s face with a black silk cloth-she felt he had best rest before the trip in the morning.
Alice set off and she was no sooner out in the road than she began chanting again. Loud, as if she were trying to reach the rafters of heaven. In a little more than a mile from the Townsend plantation Sheriff John Skiffington’s patrollers came upon her. “Master dead master dead master be dead.”
”What you doin out here?” asked Harvey Travis, the man with the Cherokee wife. He knew Alice was crazy but he thought his job required asking a question even if there was no logical answer. There were three of them, the patrollers, the same number as always for that section of the county.
Alice went on chanting and then she did a dance.
“Oh, let her alone,” Barnum Kinsey said. “She just that crazy woman from Nigger Henry’s place.”
“I’ll do what the hell I want!” Travis said. He liked Barnum better when Barnum had been drinking, when he was liable to be quiet.
“I’m just sayin, Harvey, that you know by now she ain’t no more harm. Probably even more crazy than usual since Henry died.”
“Master dead master dead master died.”
“I’m gettin plenty tired of seein you out here like this,” Travis said. “I never sleep good after I see this thing dancin in the road. My skin start crawlin.” The third patroller started laughing, but Barnum was silent. There was a weak moon and the third patroller was holding a lantern. Skiffington had been rotating the patrollers again and the man with the lantern was new to this part of the county, and though the others had assured him there was nothing to worry about, his wife, pregnant with their second child, had sent him out with a lantern. “We should start chargin Nigger Henry every time we see one a his niggers in the road.”
“Henry dead. I told you,” Barnum said, and the patroller with the lantern laughed again. He was very young. “Ain’t you listened to a word she been sayin.” Barnum, that morning, had promised his wife that he would not drink anymore. They had cried together and ended up on their knees, praying. Their children came in and seeing their parents praying, the children had gone to their knees as well. This was Barnum’s second set of children, the first set having grown up and went far out into the world to forget a father who loved them but who was, in the eyes of that world, little more than a nigger.
Alice danced past the man in front with the lantern. She pointed at Travis. “Hey, now!” he said, frightened that she was doing something evil. “Damn!” The other patrollers laughed at him.
“Master died master died master died.” She kicked her legs out and pointed at Travis and his horse.
“Dear Lord!” Travis said. “Leave her, boys. Just leave her,” and he rode around the woman, who was still kicking and still chanting. The other two patrollers started moving as well.
Barnum stopped. “You better go on home. I want you to go on home now.” Alice told him again that the master was dead. She did not stop kicking. “I know,” Barnum said, “but you best go home.” The men rode away.
After a time, Alice went down the way the men had come. She shook the dirt of the road from her frock. She wouldn’t get back to her cabin until about two-thirty that morning. What moon there was was now gone. She began to chant after a few yards and was just as loud as she had been in the beginning. On a day before the mule kicked her in the head, an African woman who spoke very little English had told her that some angels were hard of hearing, that it was best to speak real loud when talking to them.
I met a dead man layin’ in Massa lane
Ask that dead man what his name
He raised he bony head and took off his hat
He told me this, he told me that.
Elias finished the doll for Tessie his daughter the night of the day they buried Henry Townsend. He put the whittling knife on the ground beside the tree stump he was sitting on and held the doll for some time in both his hands, feeling empty and restless now that the task was done. Since his marriage to Celeste, it had helped to always have something for his hands to do when he could not shut them down in sleep. His legs never shut down-they kicked and twitched in his sleep and Celeste always threatened to tie them down for the night. “I tell you, husband, you plannin on cripplin me some more with them runnin feet.”
He ran his finger over the face of the doll and then he kissed its forehead. He had wanted it to look like Tessie but he knew he had fallen far short of that. He needed something else now for his hands, and soon. Maybe some carved figure for his oldest son, a horse. He had seen a boat once, that last day with his mother, but he did not think he could do a boat the way the first one lived on in his head, a silent brown giant sailing away under a blue sky. Any boat he would try to carve might turn out like that first comb for Celeste his wife. And besides, where could his boy sail it? Down, down in a well where he could not even see it? He would tell Tessie that the doll had the face of his own mother, for her idea of what her grandmother looked like would probably be the same as his memory of her, and that memory had shredded down to nothing over the thirty years.
Elias stood up and brushed the shavings from his shirt and pants. He was alone in the lane. The silent pledge he had made to Henry once upon a time was now no more. But that did not matter, dead man or no dead man. Elias looked up and found the winking stars in a clear part of the sky that were supposed to have guided him away. How ready he had been, at ease, legs powerful, heart desperate to beat under another moon and sun. He sat down again and put the doll inside his shirt and leaned over to pick up another piece of wood. It was nearing nine-thirty. As he took up the knife, Alice came out of her cabin and danced down the lane and stood before him with her hands on her hips. They had rarely spoken because nothing she said ever made sense. “Whatcha makin now?” she said, surprising him. “Somethin for my boy.” “Well, you just make it good, make it to last,” Alice said. He waited for her to follow up with some nonsense, but she just stood as she had been. Maybe the moon, or the lack of it, determined her ways. “Don’t be late,” Elias said to her. “Don’t be late goin out and about.” “Don’t you be late neither,” she said and danced away. He watched her, and for the first time he was afraid for her. He would begin at the horse’s head, which would be the hardest part. No boat. Why put such a notion in a boy’s head anyway? He put the wood in his left hand and the knife in his right, and then he began to cry. “Don’t be late,” he said over and over again. “Don’t be late.”
Two days after Henry bought Elias in 1847 from the white newlyweds passing through from Bath County, Elias found Celeste sitting on the ground. He knew only Moses and the men in his cabin, but had seen her from afar, limping here and there. She seemed to have been playing with or helping two children who were now skipping away. “Come on, Celeste,” the children said. “I be there directly,” she said. She struggled to get to her feet and after many tries she was standing. She stood quietly and unmoving for some time, looking down at her feet covered by her long green frock. The children called to her but she did not move. Finally she went off, taking one lumbering step after another. He watched the whole time but had not moved to help her. Escaping had been his only thought since he had come from Bath with the newlyweds who had argued with each other the whole way, and he didn’t want to be touched by any other notion. He turned and thought he was getting away before she noticed him, but she had first sensed and then seen him and she would not forget it. She had not wanted his help, but she felt he was watching a show with a cripple woman and had enjoyed it and that was not right.
She had been bought for $387 a year or so before him, but as long as she had been on the plantation, Celeste had not been known by anyone to be a hurtful woman. She never said “Master” or “Mistress” to Henry or Caldonia; just “Mr.” and “Ma’am,” her small way of saying no to everything. She had the best heart, people said of Celeste. But over the next weeks she came to resent Elias for being a cripple woman watcher and could not stop herself from being mean to him whenever she could. He would be eating his dinner at the edge of a field off to himself and she would go out of her way to limp by him and work up as much dust as she could, dirtying his food. She liked to work a row opposite one he was on just to show others how slow he was. She told people he was a lazy somebody and she didn’t mind if he heard her. When she walked down the lane and he was standing in her way, she limped faster and dared him not to move. “What you do to that woman,” someone funned him after seeing Elias nearly run over, “for her to rue the day you was ever born?”
Toward the end of his second week on the Townsend plantation, Elias became ill, suffering headaches that hammered him senseless. He could not keep food in his stomach, and there were unaccountable blisters on the soles of his feet. At times, he had to lean over in a furrow to collect himself, as some rush of pain overwhelmed and seemed to want to tear him apart right where he stood. He knew that in order to slip away one night he had to be seen as reliable, but his work suffered with his sickness and Moses also took to calling him a lazy man. “You mighta bought a pig in a poke, Master,” he told Henry one day. Elias would wake in the night and hear the wind counting off the days he had to live. “Better play. Better play,” the wind told him, “cause ain’t no more after today.”
He had never been one to believe in root work, but he began to feel that Celeste was doing something to him and that it would lead to his death, a long way from freedom. He dreamed she had gotten her limp by wrestling with the devil. But she wasn’t one for root work, and because she was the kind of woman she was, her resentment against him had actually dissipated after the third week. To her he had become just another man who couldn’t stand to be around a cripple woman. By the fourth week, she would see him bent over in a furrow and feel sorry for him.
Then, toward the middle of the fifth week, he began to improve and the wind stopped talking to him. He had been weakened by the illness, however, and tried to restore himself by working harder and longer in the fields, often staying there long after Moses told him he was finished for the day. But even by the ninth and tenth weeks his body was not what it had been, and by the fourth month, he began to despair. He continued planning to run away, but he worried that he might not have the strength to run for miles, might not be able to turn and break the necks of any dogs chasing him.
In his fourth month there, he got up off his pallet about midnight and walked away, following the stars that pointed north. This was in the time when Sheriff John Skiffington’s patrollers were getting used to their new jobs. Elias got about five miles from the Townsend place when he began losing his strength. He ate most of the hoe cakes he brought with him, thinking the problem was a body rebellious due to hunger. He stopped as often as he could to collect himself but each time he started up again, he was weaker than before. At about seven miles he was nearly reduced to crawling, and at the eighth mile he collapsed. He awoke, stretched out in the road, to hear a slow horse coming his way. Uncertain which way the horse was coming from, he began crawling toward the side of the road where tall grass waited. He parted the grass and made a place for himself and heard the horse come up and stop. It was William Robbins on Sir Guilderham. “Whatever you are, I know you are there,” Robbins said. “Come out if you’re nigger, and if you are white, tell me your name and I’ll leave you to it.”
Robbins waited for several minutes and then opened his coat and took out his single-shot pistol. “Then you are nigger and not white,” he said. He fired once into the grass, grazing Elias’s left thigh. Elias did not move and after a short while Robbins said, taking out another pistol, “I smell your blood all the way over here. If you don’t want me to draw more of it, rise up and come to me.” Robbins aimed and as he did, Elias got to his feet, his arms high in the air, his fingers spread out. It was not a full moon but it was bright enough for Robbins to see Elias’s fingers wiggling nervously. The blood was flowing slowly down his leg.
“You free or slave?”
“And no pass. I can tell that just from the smell of fear in your blood. Who do you belong to?”
“Master Henry Townsend, sir.” The “sir” was so he would not be shot again just out of pure meanness.
“Come here. What you out here cattin around for?”
“No, sir.” Elias started to move but found his left leg mired in a puddle of blood and he had to pick his leg up to go forward. When he reached Robbins, the white man leaned down and punched him as hard as he could in the jaw and Elias fell back. Then he took two quick steps toward Robbins, thinking that if he killed the white man, there was no witness except the horse. But Robbins cocked the second gun and held it out. Elias stopped.
“I know Henry Townsend,” Robbins said, “and if I have to pay for a dead one, then that is what I will do. Come here.” He held the gun an inch from Elias’s face and punched him again. Elias fell. “If you live to be a hundred, know not to run up on a white man.”
The word seemed to go out among the slaves at Henry’s place even before most of them had come out of their cabins: Somebody done got away. It was Sunday and Moses slept late and got the word last. People were happy for Elias. “Somebody’s soul done flew away. Whooossh… Feel that breeze from them wings. Lord almighty.” Stamford could not place Elias’s face and thought he was the dark-skinned fellow with a June-bug-sized mole on his left cheek until Delphie reminded him that Henry sold that man away because the man with the mole liked to fight everybody. “Was fightin from the time he got up till the time he shut his eyes. Would see his shadow pesterin after him and started hittin that. Po thing. Lord… Was fightin even you, Stamford,” Delphie said. “Hmmp!” Stamford said. “He musta lost that fight then. Musta got his head knocked off and thas why he was sold off. Didn’t have no head and couldn’t work. Had to sell that fool for scrapple meat.” Delphie said, “That ain’t the way I member it.” “Then you memberin wrong,” Stamford said and held his fists out to her to show what the man with the mole had had to contend with. This was in the days when Stamford had another young woman to be with, in the days before Gloria. “Get outa my face with them things, man,” Delphie said. The few children then on the Townsend place took much of their happiness from the adults and they began funning Stamford. The doomed Luke, then eleven, the boy who would be worked to death, shared a song he had learned from his mother-“I’m over here, I’m over there, I ain’t nowhere…” Celeste heard about the runaway Elias as she was eating the last of her ash cakes. She did not like Elias but she, too, was happy for him. What she herself could not have she always wished for someone else, so her food went down well that morning. After he got the word, after he ate his breakfast, Moses went up and told Henry, “Master, that new nigger’s in the wind.”
On Sundays, a preacher, a free man named Valtims Moffett, came over and held services for the slaves, in the barn when it was cold and out along the lane when the weather was nice. He would preach for some fifteen minutes and then everyone would sing two or three songs. The day Robbins caught Elias was a day of nice weather, not too warm, though the preacher liked to say that every day was a good day for God’s word. The preacher was a large man who suffered with gout and rheumatism, which, he was quick to tell people, “God put upon me the same way he put the cross on our savior Jesus Christ.” Some mornings it took him more than an hour to get out of bed and dressed. He had a wife and one slave to his name, but the wife, Helen, was a tiny woman and so was their slave, Pauline, full sister to the wife, and both of them together could do only so much with a large man with a cross to bear. The preacher was quite late that Sunday morning after Elias ran away, but he was not as late as he was the day Henry was buried.
Moses had just told Henry that Elias was gone when they heard Robbins’s voice and they both went around the side of the house to the front. Robbins had awakened that morning and not remembered the encounter with Elias the night before, that he had taken Elias back to his plantation and chained him to the back porch. His cook came in and reminded him at the breakfast table.
Robbins now said to Henry, “Good mornin. Sweet good mornin. Are you and Caldonia well?” Elias, chained, stood next to Robbins, only inches from his booted foot in the stirrup.
“Yessir, Mr. Robbins, we well enough,” Henry said.
“I have something of yours,” Robbins said, and he kicked Elias and the slave fell to the ground. “Picked him up on the road home last night. He has a wound somewhere in his leg, but it won’t kill him and it won’t amount to anything if you decide to sell him off one day. Less he had a very noticeable limp.” He laughed, a little joke between them, because Robbins was even less inclined those days to sell a slave and that was what he always advised Henry. He had said once, “Niggers appreciate in value, so appreciate them.”
“I see,” Henry said. Moses was behind him. “Help him up, Moses. You wanna come in, Mr. Robbins.” Moses picked Elias up by the shoulders and gave him a little bit of a smile and reminded Elias with the smile and his eyes that he never liked him.
“No, not today, Henry. Not today, but tell Caldonia I will come back this way soon. I promise.” The land they stood on had once belonged to Robbins, sold to Henry at a price far cheaper than Robbins had ever sold anything, save the slaves Toby and his sister Mindy. Robbins looked once at the side of Elias’s head and nodded to Henry. Henry told him good day. Robbins raised the reins up from his lap and pulled gently and the horse, in a slow and beautiful move of its grand head and neck, the glinting bit in its mouth a kind of accent to all that grandness, turned, and they left, prancing away down to the road, where they took off in a full gallop. The glint would stay forever in Elias’s mind. The night his second child was born he would hold him, still wet from fighting into life, and the fire from the hearth would reflect off that wetness and that glint would come forward again until he blinked it away.
Henry went to Elias and slapped him. “This is a hurtful disappointment to me. What I’m gonna do with you? What in the hell I’m gonna do with you? If you want a hard life, I will oblige.” “I will oblige” was a favorite phrase of Fern Elston’s during her lessons, heard by Henry the first time as he sat with her in her parlor dominated by trees, a peach and a magnolia, she and her servants had managed to domesticate. Her husband the gambler had seen it done by foreign people in a Richmond whorehouse and brought the technique back to Manchester County. “Is that what you want?” Henry asked. “I will oblige you with a hard life.” The trees in Fern’s house disoriented most people, those used to the inside always being inside and the outside always being outside. People said nice things about the trees to Fern even as their minds were swirling. Those people were all free Negroes because white people never came to Fern’s place. Henry had feared that Caldonia might want that done with their parlor.
“No, Marse.” Elias was still chained, Robbins having forgotten that the chains belonged to him. Other slaves had come out and were watching. Celeste was just behind the first row of people and Stamford twisted his shoulder a bit so she could see.
“You sure don’t act like it,” Henry said. Once you own them, once you own even one, you will never be alone, Robbins had told Henry after Henry purchased Moses from him. Knowing how painful loneliness could be, having been separated as a child from Augustus and then Mildred, Henry had thought that a good thing, never to be alone, to always have someone. Henry said to Elias, “If you want a good life, I will oblige that, too.” Fed by light streaming in from windows that went from the floor to a foot shy of the ceiling, the trees in Fern’s parlor grew to a height of about eight or nine feet, then stopped, as if on command. The peaches born on the tree were very tiny, could fit on a man’s thumb, and they were very sweet, too sweet for a pie or cobbler if the cook could manage to collect enough of them. The magnolia blossoms were also small, so beautiful that Fern’s gambling husband said he would frame them if they were pictures.
“Moses,” Henry said, “take him and chain him till I decide if he wants a good life or a bad life.” Since the day was a good one and Valtims Moffett the preacher would hold the services in the lane, Moses chained Elias in the large barn. “You want a good life or a bad life?” Moses mocked and then left him.
His first hours in the stall were spent thinking how he could kill everyone around him, first everyone on the plantation, then everyone in the county, in Virginia. Colored and white. He tried not to move the chains because the sound of their rattling hurt his ears, spread a dryness throughout his mouth. He could stand comfortably enough, if he wanted to stand all the time facing that section of the barn wall, the one section that was without a hole through which he could see the outside. When Elias sat, he found he could twist himself a little away from the wall, but his hands were suspended about level with his face and it was impossible to lie down. For a long time he looked up at the rafters, at the sparrows coming and going to the nest they were building. Engaged in a simple task of living-take straw to the nest, go back for more. The sun came in on them but there was not much of it near where their nest was. He wondered if he would be there long enough for the birds to have eggs, then chicks, to see the chicks grow and then make their own nests. Take straw to the nest, go back for more. To see the grandchildren sparrows become parents. He could wring the neck of everyone on the plantation, it was just a matter of whether to start with Moses or the master. Moses’s neck was thicker. The children’s necks would be the hardest. But over and done with in a snap. He could close his eyes tight with them, with the children, and with the old people. The women would scream the loudest, but God, being the kind of God he was, would give him strength.
He was very tired, not having slept at Robbins’s place. When he leaned his head forward and closed his eyes, his neck soon stiffened and he finally had to lean his head back as far as he could and accept what relief came with that. He closed his eyes but there was no sleep, not even the jittery dozing that had come at Robbins’s place.
Not long before Moffett arrived, Elias opened his eyes and saw a boy watching him. When the boy saw him open his eyes, he came closer, asking, “You want some water?”
Elias closed his eyes again and did not answer because he did not want to spare anybody’s neck.
“You want some water?”
He nodded without opening his eyes and he heard the boy leave. When he did not return, Elias thought he had been having fun with him, and he found some peace in that. He soon heard Moffett’s preaching voice, the words indistinct. When he opened his eyes again, the boy was standing before him, a chipped, discarded porcelain cup in one hand and a large piece of hoe cake in the other. “The preacher here,” the boy said with a smile, as if that was the news Elias most needed to hear. “I useta hear him when I was over the other place.” Three days ago Henry had bought Lot Number Four, a group of three slaves, and the boy had been one of them. Elias took the bread in his hands and ate, and in between bites, the boy put the cup to his lips and he drank.
“My name Luke,” he said when there was no more water.
“I know,” Elias said, looking at a fly alight on his hand and edge toward the bread. The boy smiled and turned the cup upside down and shook it. “I know.” The boy stood and ran out and returned quickly with more water. He sat before Elias and since the bread was gone, Elias held the cup in his hands. “You want some more hoe cake?” Luke said. The man shook his head. “I know a song bout Jesus. I can sing it.” Elias shook his head again. Moffett, Sunday after Sunday, had but one theme-that heaven was nearer than anyone realized and that one step away from the righteous path could take heaven away forever. “Hang on,” he liked to say, “just hang on, cause heaven is right over there. See it. See it. Close your eyes and see it.” His ending words were that they should obey their masters and mistresses, for heaven would not be theirs if they disobeyed. “One day I want to sit with yall and eat peaches and cream in heaven. I don’t wanna have to lean over and look way way down and see yall burnin in them fires of hell.” Luke and Elias could not make out his words and so they just listened to the way his words came into the barn and bounced around. The sparrows were no longer flying, just chirping somewhere above their heads. Elias could see them in his mind, arranging the straw and turning around and around on it to make a place smooth enough to be a home to the eggs. At last Luke said, “I was born on Marse Colfax place… You know that?”
Elias said, “I know. I know that.” Dropping the cup into his lap, he leaned his face into his hands and began to cry. On the worst days he had ever had, he had always been able to see himself as one day living free. But now…
“Is all right,” Luke said. “I’ll sit with you. Is all right. I’ma sit with you till all them hants leave you alone. I ain’t afraid of no hants.”
Moffett, after the services, sat with Henry and Caldonia in their dining room, eating bread and cheese and a tea that was more honey than anything else. He claimed anything sweet eased his gout. Now and again in their lives Caldonia and Henry would go down to the services with the slaves but generally the sitting with Moffett would pass in their minds as a kind of service, as communion with God. After the meal, Moffett sat with his feet propped on a stool Zeddie the cook had brought in from the back for him. The stool, padded, was used for little else and had become known as the Reverend Moffett stool.
Henry said little, thinking about what he would do with Elias.
“You are away from us this day, Henry,” Moffett said at one point. He had been paid the $1 for conducting the services the moment after he entered the house. In his early days of preaching, before the gout, he had been paid 3 cents for every slave he preached to, but the county had been wealthier then. Now, few white slaveowners employed him, many preferring to simply read to their servants out of the Bible. The few black slaveowners had begun to believe that their own salvation would flow down to their slaves; if they themselves went to church and led exemplary lives, then God would bless them and what they owned. And one day they would go to heaven, and so would their slaves. So why pay Moffett to help do what they could manage for nothing?
“He hasn’t been sleeping well,” Caldonia said. “I believe, Reverend Moffett, he works too hard and it shows with all those headaches. Sleepless nights. ‘Rest up, Henry,’ I’m always telling him. ‘Rest up.’ Perhaps you could supplement my words, Reverend Moffett. Remind him that God would not be happy to see us work ourselves to death.” She and Henry had been married three years and seven months.
“He certainly wouldn’t,” Moffett said. “Laziness is one sin, Henry, but working too much is also a sin. Why do you think God put such emphasis on Sunday, on resting. Keep the Sabbath holy is just God’s way of telling us not to overtax ourselves. Make God happy, Henry, and tax yourself just enough to pay your bill.”
“Precisely,” Caldonia said.
“I do,” Henry said. “I do rest up. It’s just that my wife doesn’t see all the times that I do.” Watching Moses tell him that Elias was gone, he had decided that a whipping would not be enough, that only an ear would do this time. He had just not decided if it should be the whole ear or only a piece, and if a piece, how big a piece?
“Oh, for goodness sakes, Henry!” Caldonia said. “You might get Reverend Moffett to accept that, but I know better.”
Moffett shifted in his chair and put one foot over the other on the stool. He had two more services to conduct that day and he would be late for both. Henry used him because he remembered him from his days as a slave at William Robbins’s, had liked to listen to him after his parents were gone into freedom and there was only Rita, his second mother, to care for him.
Henry watched him ride off in his buggy and decided then that he would send for Oden Peoples, the Cherokee, the next day. He told Caldonia once they were back inside, in their parlor.
“That,” she said, “seems too great a punishment, Henry. Too much for such a small crime.” She was on the settee and he was at the window on the left side of the room.
“It ain’t that small, Caldonia. It’s a bad apple in the barrel, right down at the bottom, not even at the top where you can pick it and throw it away. Somethin gots to be done,” he said. Sometimes he talked the way Fern had tried to teach him and sometimes he did not. He was especially “deviant and lazy,” as she called it, when he was tired and uncertain. Caldonia sensed the exhaustion now and went to him, putting her arms around his back. Marriage, too, meant the end of loneliness, but Robbins had said nothing about that.
“Let him try one more time to do what’s right, Henry.”
“I cain’t. I just cain’t.” As a boy at Robbins’s plantation, he had known a man whose right ear had been cut off after he ran away a second time. When the man, Sam, wifeless, childless, was old and running was not so much on his mind anymore and he had time to gnaw on his unhappiness, he liked to grab small children to scare them, putting the earless side of his head close to the child’s face until the child screamed to be let go. The wound had blossomed into a terrible mushroom of scar tissue and was as different from the other side of his face as heaven from hell. “Go find my ear!” the old man would holler as he shook them. “Go find my ear, I say, and be quick about it!” One boy had fainted. Another child’s father had beat Sam but still he did not stop grabbing hold of children. Henry himself had been grabbed a few times, but one day, when he was twelve, he found himself not afraid anymore, wondered where the fear had gone as Sam pulled him closer to the side of his head and the mushroom once again threatened to open up and become large enough to pull him in. He was held long enough to study the brown smoothness of the scar that invited him to reach over and touch. Henry even had time to peer into the ear hole partly covered over with gray hair and brown smoothness and wonder how much sound such an ear could take in.
“Give him another day in the barn to reconsider,” Caldonia said. She took her arms from around him and held them at her sides but still continued leaning into his back.
“A day too long a time, Caldonia.”
As had been planned, they took an early supper at Fern Elston’s. Her gambler of a husband, Ramsey, was there and had started to drink even before their guests had arrived. Ramsey was not drunk but as often happened with him, he turned combative in the middle of the meal and accused another guest of owing him money. That guest, Saunders Church, was there with his wife, Isabelle, two free colored people without a slave to their names. Saunders laughed at first, thinking Ramsey was trying to fun him.
”Ramsey,” Fern said after her husband had asked for the money a third time, “let us leave financial matters until another day.”
Henry had been silent the entire meal. He had not wanted to come but Caldonia had insisted, saying that it might raise his mood.
“I owe you nothin,” Saunders said at last, seeing that Ramsey was not out to fun him. “I owe you nothin.” It was true; the drinking often made Ramsey think the whole world owed him a debt. The three men and the three women were the entire supper party. Ramsey was at the head of his table.
“Why not leave off, Ramsey, just like Fern said,” Henry said. “Saunders be your guest.” He was sitting at Ramsey’s left and Isabelle was sitting at Ramsey’s right.
“I didn’t ask some white man’s nigger about living my life,” Ramsey said. “You ask Robbins what to say this evening?”
Henry looked down at his lap and then reached over swiftly before Ramsey could move and held tight to Ramsey’s throat, shook it a time or two and continued to hold on. Ramsey began to sink in his seat. He was a reddish black man but slowly, as Henry held tight, all color disappeared from his face and his mouth opened and closed ever so slowly, like that of a fish, as he tried to pull in what little bit of air he could. Ramsey was able to look down across the table to his wife. Their marriage was approaching the far side of the hill from where they had started out and Fern looked into his eyes and did not move.
“Henry, for God’s sakes!” Caldonia said and took hold of his arm with both of hers. “Please, Henry!” Saunders got up and managed to pry Henry’s hand from Ramsey’s neck and Ramsey sank even deeper into his seat. Caldonia pulled Henry away and her husband sat in his seat and rested both hands on the edge of the table, on either side of his plate. Henry looked down to Fern and said, “I’m sorry to ruin such a good afternoon.” Isabelle and Saunders and Caldonia tended to Ramsey. Fern nodded and said, “I know you are, Henry. I know you are.”
That day the Townsends and Valtims Moffett arrived back at their respective homes at about the same time. Moffett came up the short lane at his place and before he was even five yards from his little house he could hear his wife and her sister arguing. The dog was dead so there was no one to greet him. There was still a good bit of sun left and his body, oiled and fed by the long day, had enough energy and power to do some work. He took the carriage to the barn and went to his house, stood at the edge of the porch and listened. Their fighting had been going on for two months, since two days after he had slept with his sister-in-law. His unhappy wife had let it be known to her sister that she would not care if the sister slept with Moffett. But once the sister had done so, an unexpected rage took hold of the wife and the two would argue all day and late into the night.
Moffett stood and listened. He took a perverse delight in hearing them, was lulled into sleep by the sound of their fighting. He knew God was not pleased about that, but he felt he had many years of life ahead of him, despite his ailments, and so there would be time to force his knees to bend before God and ask his forgiveness. The women worked to please him, to show him that each was better for him and that the other should be cast out. Did God deny David and Solomon any less? Moffett went to the barn. He could still hear them from there. Soon the sun would be gone, and it would take with it his strength. He prepared the horse for the night and took up his plow. He emptied the money from his purse and counted out what he had earned-$4.50. Still in his Sunday preaching clothes, he took up the tools needed to sharpen the plow.
Henry and Caldonia retired early that night and he made love to her twice, forever seeking the son who might temper Augustus Townsend’s heart. When it was done, he lay on his back and she rested on her side and put her arm across his chest. “What anyone said never mattered to me,” she said after a time, thinking of what Ramsey the gambler had said. He was sweating and she put her tongue to the side of his face where the sweat poured down and caught some of it with the tip of her tongue.
”I know,” he said.
“Put more armor round that heart of yours about such things,” Caldonia said.
“I’m tryin,” he said and smiled. “I spect I’ll have the full armor by day after tomorrow.” He closed his eyes and she pulled herself even closer and the sweating stopped and she closed her mouth. Sam, the man with one ear, lived on at the Robbins’s plantation. He had a cabin to himself, which Robbins had permitted even after the overseer had said it would spoil him. “Once he learned right from wrong, he gave me good work,” Robbins said to the overseer. Sam was still grabbing and frightening little children. The grown-ups knew it was a habit that they could do nothing about, so they tried to teach the children to avoid him. “Give him not even so much as a good mornin or a good night. Wave from way over yonder when he speak to you and be on your way.”
On his way to the Townsend place on Tuesday morning, Oden Peoples the Cherokee met Sheriff John Skiffington and told him he had been hired by Henry after one of his slaves had run away. Skiffington had in his saddlebag a month-old letter from his cousin Counsel Skiffington in North Carolina. The letter swore by a woman in Amelia County who had a cure for stomach ailments, which John Skiffington had suffered from since he was a boy. Counsel had always teased John about his “woman’s stomach” but he had never thought his cousin’s pain was not real. John had set out for an overnight trip to the woman in Amelia, but hearing about Elias running away, he decided to go with Oden Peoples, one of his patrollers. A runaway slave was, in fact, a thief since he had stolen his master’s property-himself. They arrived about 9:30. Moses and one other man took Elias from the field and Oden sliced off about a third of his ear as everyone, including Henry, stood in the lane. Elias had his head down all the while except when Oden pulled it up to get the razor to do a better job. All of the lobe and then some. Oden always carried a pouch with a pepper poultice, which he blended with vinegar and mustard and a little salt-a proven remedy to halt the bleeding of even those who seemed to have more blood than other men. “The bleeders,” Oden called them. Elias lowered his head again and stood with his hands at his side, refusing to hold the poultice in place. In the end, Oden had to tie the poultice on Elias’s head with a rag Moses brought from his cabin.
Henry told Moses to take everybody back to the field. And there in the lane he paid Oden $1 for doing the job on Elias’s ear. “You think it’ll hold,” Henry said after he and Oden and Skiffington had left the lane and were nearing Oden’s saddleless horse and Skiffington’s red mare. “I don’t know,” Oden said. “It depends on what kinda heart he got in him. But,” and he took the reins, “I’ll come back and do the rest of that ear and won’t charge you.”
Skiffington said, “I’ll pass through when I return from Amelia to make sure all is right. But you, Henry, have some responsibility. As does everyone else with servants who get it into their head to run away. You must be vigilant.” Not long before, after he had hired the patrollers, he told one white man whose slave had a habit of coming and going as he pleased, “My men are not angels, able to fly above and see wrong being committed and come down and turn the wrong into right. They can only do so much. So you have to help and look out for your servants, too.”
“We’ll see to him, Mr. Skiffington,” Henry said.
Oden said of Elias, “If he runs again, the rest of the ear I’ll do for nothin, but I will have to charge you for any work done on that other ear.” He mounted. He took part of the horse’s mane and ran his fingers through it, laid it to rest on the left side of the horse’s neck. Skiffington mounted and said, “I ain’t never seen a servant with both his ears gone.” “I have,” Oden said, “but it whatn’t me that done it.” Henry said, “That would be a shame. To have em both gone.” Oden, being a Cherokee, wouldn’t have merited a “Mr.” if Henry had called him by name. “Yes, it would be,” Oden said. “Just remember I gotta charge you for the other ear. Thas only fair. But I’ll do the rest of that one for nothin. Won’t cost you a cent.”
Henry said nothing and both men rode out to the road and there they parted, Skiffington to Amelia with hope that the woman could help him and his stomach and Oden, his ponytail bouncing, home to rest after a night of patrolling. Oden would not have had his ear business if it had not been for the death of a slave in Amherst County. A white man had cut off the ear of his “habitual runaway,” and the slave had bled to death. No one could understand what had happened-people had been cutting off ears or parts of ears for more than two centuries. In the seventeenth century throughout the Virginia colony even white indentured servants had had their ears cut off. But somehow the luck of the Amherst County man had run out and his $515 slave had died from the loss of blood. A few white people wanted him indicted for manslaughter, but the grand jury declined, finding that the man had suffered enough with the loss of his property.
People were spooked by what happened to the slave who bled to death, began to believe that even after two hundred years of doing it there might yet be a real science to cutting off ears, just as there was to hobbling a slave and butchering hogs in the fall. Promising good, efficient work and no dying, Oden had stepped forward after the death of the Amherst County slave, a twenty-seven-year-old left-handed man named Fred. Even after Oden took on the task, some masters continued to use the man’s death as a way to frighten possible runaways. “You mess up on me and you’ll get what that nigger Fred got. Then I’ll throw your damn carcass to the hogs.” That wasn’t true-hogs would eat just about anything, but Virginia hogs would never eat human beings. By Skiffington’s fourth year in office, Oden practically had a monopoly on ear cutting in some five counties, not including Manchester.
Luke slept beside Elias that Tuesday night after Oden cut off part of his ear. Luke knew a boy who had known Fred and he thought that if Elias should start bleeding during the night, he would be there to help him, could run fast enough to get Loretta before Elias lost all his blood. Elias told him at first that he didn’t want a soul near him and that he would kill him if the boy stayed. Luke said nothing and made his pallet a few inches from where Elias was chained up.
Caldonia and Loretta came in the barn before either the man or the boy went to sleep. Loretta removed Oden’s poultice and put on her own bandage, never saying a word during the whole time.
“Please, try to be good,” Caldonia said before leaving. “Please, try.” The two women had knelt down to Elias and Loretta had dropped Oden’s poultice in the straw and Caldonia had picked it up. There was not enough blood on it to worry about; one hour of her monthlies produced more. The smell of the pepper was strong. Caldonia said to Elias before standing up, “It is just as easy to do good as it is to do bad.” Elias stayed silent.
Caldonia looked down at Loretta tending to him and Luke looking at the man and the woman. All of it, every single bit of it, was a horrible mess. These were the times that made her want to rethink the road they were all going down. Such a long road for such a legacy, for slaves. “My legacy,” her mother Maude often said. “We must protect the legacy.”
Loretta stood and took the poultice from Caldonia. “I’ll see bout you in the mornin,” Loretta said. They left the barn and Caldonia told her to go on up to the house, that she wanted to visit a mite before retiring. She often visited the people in the lane, and some of them were ashamed to have her come into the cabins, knowing the miracle of the house she lived in. “I’ll come with you,” Loretta said. Caldonia shook her head. She said, “Tell your master I’ll be along directly.” Caldonia turned away and went to the lane. Where there was light seeping from under a door she knocked and knocked again until someone opened or asked, “Who that there? Who that comin to my door?”
Some two weeks later, another Sunday, after Moffett had come and preached and gone, Elias came upon Celeste holding Luke in her arms. They were near the fields and the boy was sobbing. She looked up and saw Elias and was not happy to see him, remembering the way he must have watched her limping about.
”Luke, boy, whas the matter with you?” Elias said. For a brief moment he thought Celeste may have slapped him and then regretted what she had done. But the way her arms engulfed the boy told him that she had done him no harm. His time with the boy had put Luke as close as any human being could be to the man’s heart. “Luke, boy, tell Elias whas wrong? Who hurt you? Tell Elias who it be?”
Celeste said, “I think he just missin his mama. A boy can miss his mama. A girl can miss her mama. I found him under that tree just cryin his heart out.” She did not want Elias the watcher man to come any closer to them but he did and he put his hand over the boy’s head and his hand was near one of her wrists. “Luke, I’ll be your mama,” she said. “I’ll be all the mama I can be for you.”
Soon, the boy quieted. Celeste looked at Elias’s hand and then up at him. There was a storm coming, which was why Elias had gone looking for Luke. The boy liked to play in the rain and never cared that lightning could kill him. The rain came now, a teasing kind of rain, soft, intermittent drops. A thirsty sparrow could have leaned its head back and enjoyed the drops without any fear of drowning. Celeste looked at a large drop of rain on the back of Elias’s hand covering Luke’s head, watched as the one drop was joined by two others. There was the sound of thunder but it was still far away, on the other side of the mountains. Celeste said, “We best get him out of this mess.” She managed to look the man in the face. “Yes, we best get him out of it.”
They, Celeste and Elias, continued to have next to nothing to say to each other after that and Elias went back to planning on running away. Late in the night, after Moses had assured Henry that Elias had learned his lesson, Elias would test the waters and go out to the road and wait to see what might descend on him.
When he began to care for Celeste, he would never be able to say, only that he awoke one morning to a quietness and stillness in the world he had never known before. The birds were not singing, the fire in the hearth did not crackle, the mice did not come and go, and even the snorers he shared the cabin with slept in silence. It was at such a time that he had always imagined he would slip away to freedom, a time when all the world had their heads turned the other way. But he sat up on his pallet and listened to the nothing and wanted to be with her. Slowly, the world seemed to come back to its senses and the first thing he thought he heard was the sound of her limping down the lane, the hem of her frock swishing along the ground, the foot of her bad leg scraping along in that second before she lifted it.
When he tried to get close to her, to walk a little bit beside her, hoping that closeness would say what he did not have words for, she would hurry away, believing he only wanted to see her life with a terrible limp. He hurt, day after day, to see her move away. Then, late one evening, almost two months after Oden took the razor to his ear, after all the work of the day and the slaves were in those moments when they set their minds to sleep, he came to the cabin she shared with two other women and Elias tapped until one of the women came to the door. Celeste had brought Luke to live with her, but he was not there.
“Could you mind tellin Celeste I’d like a word with her?” Elias said to the woman.
The woman laughed but when she saw he wasn’t going away, she turned and called to Celeste, “That Elias be wantin you.”
It seemed a long time before she came to the door. He nodded and she nodded back.
“I just wanted a word with you, thas all,” he said.
“All right,” she said.
He looked her full in the face, the light from inside the cabin silhouetting her. “Why you all the time treatin me bad when all I wanna do is treat you good?”
“What that you say?”
“Why you all the time treatin me bad when all I wanna do is treat you good? Thas what I said.”
“I ain’t think I was treatin you no kinda bad way.”
“Well, you was and all I’m askin is that you stop it.”
She put one hand on the doorjamb to steady herself to come down the one step to him and he took her by the other arm. She said after a minute or so, “I didn’t mean no harm by it.”
He believed her and was again without words. He found them when he heard one of the women inside the cabin laugh at something the other woman said. “I be talkin to you, then. Tomorrow if thas all right with you. I be talkin to you tomorrow.”
“Yes.” She turned, a hand again on the doorjamb, and stepped up as he held her elbow. She went inside and closed the door.
A week later he was at her door again and she was in the doorway and he opened a little piece of a rag and presented a comb he had carved out of a piece of wood. The comb was rough, certainly one of the crudest and ugliest instruments in the history of the world. Not one tooth looked like another; some of the teeth were far too thick, but most of them were very thin, the result of his whittling away with the hope that he was approaching some kind of perfection. “Oh,” Celeste said. “Oh, my.” She took it and smiled. “My goodness gracious.”
”It ain’t much.”
“It be the whole world. You givin it to me?”
“Well, my goodness gracious.” She tried to run the comb through her hair but the comb failed in its duty. “Oh, my,” Celeste said as she struggled with it. Several teeth broke off. “Oh, my.”
He reached up and taking her hand with the comb, they extricated it from her hair. “I done broke it,” she said when they had pulled it away. “Dear Lord, I done broke it.”
“Pay it no mind,” Elias said.
“But you gave it to me, Elias.” Aside from the food in her stomach and the clothes on her back and a little of nothing in a corner of her cabin, the comb was all she had. A child of three could have toted around all she owned all day long and not gotten tired.
“We can do another one.” He reached up and picked out the comb’s teeth that had broken off in her hair.
“I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.”
She began to cry. “Thas easy to say today cause the sun be shinin. Tomorrow, maybe next week, there won’t be no sun, and you won’t be studyin no comb.”
He said again, “I’ll make you a comb for every hair on your head.” He dropped the broken teeth onto the ground and she closed her hand tight over what was left of the comb.
She put her face into her other hand and cried. There had been a slave on the plantation she had come from who had come upon her in a field of corn and told her that a woman like her should be shot, like a horse with a broken leg. And she had cried then as well.
Elias put his arms around her, tentative, for this was the first time. He trembled and the trembling increased the closer she got to his body. He kissed the side of her head, near the hairline, and his lips met not only her skin and hair but a tooth from the comb that he had somehow missed.
They ate their supper together the next day at the edge of the field, and when he was done, he told her he had to speak to the master and he got up from beside her and walked out of the field and Moses didn’t ask him what he was doing or where he was going. At the back of the house, he tapped at the door. Zeddie the cook opened it. “Zeddie, I got to speak with Master Henry. Can I speak with Master Henry, please?”
”I go tell him,” Zeddie said. “You step in here.” She opened the door wider and he came in, his first time in the house. He smelled what a tree smelled like when it was first cut into, the wood blood from the first wound of the ax. Elias shut the door. She returned in moments with their master and Henry said before he was fully into the kitchen, “What is it there, Elias?”
Elias looked at Zeddie, then said, “I be likin Celeste, Master, and I be likin her more as the day go by. That likin ain’t gon stop tomorrow, as I can see.”
“That so, Elias?”
“Yes, Master. I wanna marry her. I wanna be with her. There ain’t nothin more I want sides that, cept to live.” He had dreamed again last night that he had run away to freedom. He had been as safe as an angel at God’s knee, safe on the road to freedom, and then he remembered that there was something way back in slavery that he had forgotten and so he ran back into slavery, passing millions who were running toward freedom. He searched the empty slave quarters for what he had forgotten and in the last cabin out of the hundreds he searched, he had come upon Celeste, without even one leg to stand on. She saw him and turned her face from him.
“And you be wantin me to say ‘Yes’ to this?”
“Master, I make her a good husband and I be a good worker every day God gimme strength. I would hate, Master, for us to be took apart after she my wife. It would feel bad for us to be sold apart. It would feel bad.” Elias knew what he was saying and he knew that if his master blessed it all, he would never again dream of being on that road. “I would hate to lose a good wife and Celeste would hate to lose a good husband. We would hate bein separate.”
“I want you happy, Elias. And I want to make Celeste happy. So you get back now and both yall be happy.”
“Thank you, Master.”
Zeddie had been stoking the fire in the stove and now she left off that and opened the door for Elias. He went out. Henry went through his house and came out the front door in time to see Elias walk down to the fields. Elias was the only human being about, and the way to the road was closer than the way to the fields. Henry went down the stairs and followed Elias, who went straight to the fields and took up his work, just as he had done before supper, which was now over for every slave in the field. Henry could see Celeste limping up the rows, limping and fast at work, and she was in one part of the fields and her husband-to-be was in another part. Elias did not look at her and she did not look at him. Moses waved to Henry and Henry waved back.
Henry stood watching Elias for some time, and in all that time Elias did not look at Celeste. His feelings were all the looking he needed, Henry realized. And he realized, too, that what was happening was better than chains. He had them together, bound one strong man to a woman with a twisted leg, and there was not a chain in sight. He could not wait to tell William Robbins. Henry went back the way he came, back to the house, and he put in his big book the day he had decided that Elias and Celeste would marry, wrote it in the flowing script that Fern Elston had taught him when he was twenty years old.
Moffett married them, and while he was away his sister-in-law beat her sister half to death. It took a little shifting around but Celeste and Elias got a cabin to themselves and brought Luke to live with them. Skiffington arrested Moffett’s sister-in-law, but nothing came of it because her sister did not want her prosecuted. She went back home and the three of them went on as before.
The boy Luke was happy. When Shavis Merle, a white man with three slaves to his name, sought to hire Luke during the harvest, Elias told Henry he would go instead, for all the world knew how hard Merle could be. But Henry did not want to grant Elias two wishes in one year and he hired Luke out for $2 a week. Merle believed in feeding his workers plenty of food, but they gave it all back in the field, from sunup to sundown, and no one that year gave up more than Luke did. After Luke died in the field, Merle protested up and down about paying compensation, but William Robbins got him to pay Henry $100 for the boy. “Fair business is fair business,” Robbins had to keep telling Merle. Moffett was early to the boy’s funeral, which Merle attended, and Moffett said some words at the gravesite, but no one said more than Elias and at the last his new wife had to put her arms around him to bring an end to all the words.