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2 The Wedding Present. Dinner First, Then Breakfast. Prayers Before an Offering.

In the Bible God commanded men to take wives, and John Skiffington obeyed.

He tried always to live humbly and obediently in the shadow of God, but he was afraid that at twenty-six years old he was falling short. He yearned for earthly things, to begin with, and he rendered far more unto Caesar than he knew God would have liked. I am imperfect, he said to God each morning he rose from his bed. I am imperfect, but I am still clay in your hands, ever walking the way you want me to. Mold me and help me to be perfect in your eyes, O Lord.

God had not put it in his mind to take a wife until that autumn afternoon in 1840 in the parlor of Sheriff Gilly Patterson. Skiffington, who had been Patterson’s deputy for two years, had come up at twenty years old with his father to Manchester, to a town and county in the middle of Virginia his father had seen only once as a child and had dreamed about twice as an adult. His father had long been the overseer on the North Carolina plantation owned by his cousin, and it was there that John Skiffington grew uneasily into manhood, grew into it among 10 or so white people and 209 or so slaves, the numbers changing only slightly year by year, owing to birth, owing to sales and purchases, owing to death. The night before John Skiffington’s mother died, his father dreamed that God told him he did not want him and his son having dominion over slaves, and two days later the man and his son left North Carolina, carrying the dead woman in a pine box in a wagon the cousin bestowed on them. Don’t leave your wife in North Carolina, God had said to the father at the end of the dream.

Sheriff Patterson’s two nieces came down from Philadelphia in 1840 for a three-month stay, and he and his wife held one o’clock dinners most Sundays while the young women were there. They would invite folks near and about for small gatherings, and it was on that autumn afternoon that it was John Skiffington and his father’s turn. Patterson’s wife was distant kin to William Robbins’s wife, and Robbins and his wife came as well, though Robbins viewed the Pattersons, to say nothing of the Skiffingtons, as being two or three rungs beneath him and his.

John Skiffington and his father arrived first and John stepped out of a gray day into Mrs. Patterson’s dull blue parlor and saw first thing Winifred Patterson, a product of the Philadelphia School for Girls, an institution with one foot in Quakerism. He was not a shy man and he was bear-large. Winifred was not shy either, an unintended result of being at the Philadelphia School for Girls, and it wasn’t long before he and Winifred-after the arrival of the Robbinses-had retired to a corner of the parlor and begun a conversation that lasted through dinner and into early evening. What surprised him most was why the female sex had not interested him before that Sunday. Where had God been keeping that part of his head and heart?

He saw her often after that, in Mrs. Patterson’s parlor, or in church or on buggy rides accompanied by Mrs. Patterson and Winifred’s younger sister. John became the only regular visitor at the Pattersons’ Sunday dinners, and had to be told a few times by Mrs. Patterson, suppressing a titter, that it was rude and selfish to take Winifred aside before the other dinner guests had a chance to relish the worldliness that the Philadelphia School for Girls had instilled in her. By early January Mrs. Patterson told her husband that things were moving in such a way that it might be best if Mr. Patterson summoned his brother from Philadelphia, that the brother and John Skiffington might want to talk. The brother arrived, the men talked, but Winifred returned to Philadelphia in March, after the second frost that did wonders for gardens that year. Skiffington visited Philadelphia twice, and came away that last time in May with Winifred’s promise that she would marry him.

They married in June, a wedding attended by even the better white people in the county, so liked had John become in his time in Manchester as Patterson’s deputy. His father’s cousin was ill in North Carolina but the cousin sent his son, Counsel Skiffington, and Counsel’s wife, Belle, a product of a very good family in Raleigh. Though John and Counsel had grown up together, as close as brothers, they had no overwhelming love for each other. Indeed, had Counsel not been a wealthy man he would have found his mild dislike of John veering toward something most unkind whenever they met. But wealth helped to raise him above what would have made other men common riffraff and so he was more than happy to come to his cousin’s wedding in a Virginia town whose name his wife had to keep reminding him of. And, too, Counsel hadn’t been out of North Carolina in five months and he had been feeling an ache to walk about under a different sky.

Counsel and his wife, with some discussion from his dying father, brought a wedding present for Winifred from North Carolina. They waited to present it until the reception for family members in the house John had bought near the edge of town for his bride. About three o’clock, after matters had quieted down some, Belle went out to where her maid was in the backyard and returned with a slave girl of nine years and had the girl, festooned with a blue ribbon, stand and then twirl about for Winifred. “She’s yours,” Belle told Winifred. “A woman, especially a married one, is nothing without her personal servant.” All the people from Philadelphia were quiet, along with John Skiffington and his father, and the people from Virginia, especially those who knew the cost of good slave flesh, smiled. Belle picked up the hem of the girl’s dress and held it out for Winifred to examine, as if the dress itself were a bonus.

Winifred looked at her new husband and he nodded and Winifred said, “Thank you.” Winifred’s father left the room, followed by Skiffington’s father. Counsel went on smiling; he was thinking of all those early days in North Carolina when his dislike for his cousin was taking root. The trip up to that nowhere Virginia town had been worth it just for the look on his cousin’s face. “It’s a good way of introducing you to the life you should become accustomed to, Mrs. Skiffington,” Counsel said to Winifred. He looked at Belle, his wife. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Skiffington?”

“Of course, darling.” She said to the wedding present, “Say hello. Say hello to your mistress.”

The girl did, curtsying the way she had been shown before leaving North Carolina and many times during the trip to Manchester. “Hello. Hello, mistress.”

“Her name is Minerva,” Belle said. “She will answer to the name Minnie, but her proper name is Minerva. She will, however, answer to either, to whatever you choose to call her. Call her Minnie and she will answer. But her proper name is Minerva.” Her first maid, received when Belle was twelve, had had a disagreeable night cough and had to be replaced after a few weeks with a quieter soul.

“Minerva,” the child said.

“See,” Belle said. “See.” The night that Belle Skiffington would die, that first maid, Annette, grown out of a cough that had plagued her for years, would open a Bible in the study of her Massachusetts home, looking for some verses to calm her mind before sleep. Out of the Bible would fall a leaf from a North Carolina apple tree that she had, the night she escaped with five other slaves, secreted in her bosom for good luck. She would not have seen the leaf for many years and at first she would not remember where the browned and brittle thing came from. But as she remembered, as the leaf fell apart in her fingers, she would fall into a cry that would wake everyone in her house and she could not be calmed, not even when morning came. Belle’s second maid, the one who had never been sick a day in her life, would die the night after Belle did. Her name was Patty and she had had three children, one dead, two yet alive, Allie and Newby, a boy who liked to drink directly from a cow’s teat. Those two children would die the third night, the same night the last of Belle’s children died, the beautiful girl with freckles who played the piano so well.

“See,” Belle said again to Winifred. “Now I don’t want you spoiling her, Mrs. Skiffington. Spoiling has been the ruination of many. And, sweet Winifred, I just will not have it.” Belle laughed and picked up the hem of Minerva’s dress again.

“Yes,” Counsel said, winking at John his cousin, “my wife is the best evidence of the ruination that spoiling brings.”

The morning after their wedding night Winifred turned to her husband in their bed and told him slavery was not something she wanted in her life. It was not something he wanted either, he said; he and his father had sworn off slavery before they left North Carolina, he reminded his bride. That was how his father had interpreted the final dream, as well as the ones he had been having for weeks. Wash your hands of all that slavery business, God had said in his dreams. The death of John Skiffington’s mother was just God’s way of emphasizing what he wanted. Don’t leave your wife in North Carolina.

Skiffington sat up on the side of his marriage bed. He and Winifred were whispering, though Minerva, the wedding present, and his father were way at the end of the hall. Counsel and Belle would be leaving that day, but even with them gone Skiffington saw no way to rid themselves of the girl. Selling her would be out of the question because they could not know what would become of her. Even selling her to a kind master, a God-fearing master, did not ensure that such a master would never sell her to someone who did not fear God. And giving her away was no better than selling her. Winifred sat up in bed. They had both gotten up after their lovemaking the night before and put on their nightclothes, so unaccustomed were they to each other. She pulled the gown’s collar tight around her neck and placed her hand over the collar and her neck.

“I had almost forgotten where I was,” Winifred said, meaning the South, meaning the world of human property. She looked over at the window where even the heavy curtains could not hold back what was promising to be an extraordinarily beautiful day. Right then, she recalled the woman and her handsome husband in Philadelphia who had been thrown into jail for keeping two free black people as slaves. They had been slaves for years, confined to the house, and all the white neighbors knew the slaves by name, but people just thought they were part of the family. They even had the white people’s last name.

“That was just Counsel,” Skiffington said, a bit defensively. The South was home, and not at all the hell some in the North wanted to make it. “Not everyone can afford to give away a slave like that. They’re expensive, Winifred. That was just Counsel, pokin at me. He can afford to take pokes at me. And they really wanted to please you. Make you happy.”

“It hurts me to think about it,” she said and began to cry. He turned round in the bed and pulled her to him, placing his hand on the back of her head. “Please, John…”

“Shhh,” he said. Then, after a while, he kissed the top of her head and put his mouth to her ear. “She might be better off with us than anywhere else.” He was thinking not only about what would happen if they sold her into God only knew what but what their neighbors might say if they gave her to Winifred’s people for a life in the North: Deputy John Skiffington, once a good man, but now siding with the outsiders, and northern ones at that. Skiffington asked his wife, “Are you and me not good people?”

“I would hope so,” Winifred said. She lay back in the bed and Skiffington got up to dress, for he was still the deputy, newlywed or not. There were still tears in her but she held them and busied herself watching her husband. Then he was gone. She started back crying.

Three rooms away, the wedding present, Minerva, heard her master leave and she came silently out of her room and studied the bare window nearest her and the hall and all the doors along the hall. The sun came full through the window and made most of the glass knobs on the doors glow. Then before her very eyes, bit by bit, the sun rose and the glow was gone. Minerva was barefoot, though Belle had more than once warned the child never to traipse around without her night slippers. Minerva had, though, remembered to put one of Winifred’s shawls around her shoulders. “You will be in a proper house,” Belle had instructed her, “and you must not go about with your shoulders bare. Now repeat what I have just told you.”

Minerva went to the window nearest her and looked out to where the sun was still rising. She had an older sister back in North Carolina and every morning back home she could look down where the sun was coming up to the neighboring farm where her sister was a slave. They had been able to visit with one another about once every three weeks. Minerva, though she had traveled for days and days to get from North Carolina to Virginia, looked down to where the sun was rising, believing with a heart that had a long reach that she could see the farm where her sister was. She was disappointed that she could not. Though just a shout and a holler away from Belle Skiffington, the sister back in North Carolina would escape the devastation that was to come to Belle and almost all that God had given her. Minerva wanted to raise the window, thinking that the farm with her sister was just a little look-see beyond the windowpane, but she dared not touch it. Minerva and her sister would not see each other again for more than twenty years. It would be in Philadelphia, nine blocks from the Philadelphia School for Girls. “You done growed,” her sister would say, both hands to Minerva’s cheeks. “I would have held back on growing up,” Minerva would say. “I would have waited for you to see me grow but I had no choice in the matter.”

Minerva stepped away from the window and took one step down the hall and stopped. The child listened. She took two more steps and was near the staircase going down. She was not brave enough to go down the steps where she thought the rest of the household might be. In less than a week she would be brave enough, brave enough to even go to the front door and open it up and take a step onto the morning porch. The child now took more steps, passing her own room, and came to a partly opened door. She could see John Skiffington’s father on his knees praying in a corner of his room. Fully dressed with his hat on, the old man, who would find another wife in Philadelphia, had been on his knees for nearly two hours: God gave so much and yet asked for so little in return. Minerva stepped on and finally came to the end of the hall where Winifred was still crying in her bed and did not hear the little girl knock once and then once again on the door that was ajar. Finally, Winifred heard. “Yes. Yes,” she said. “Who is it?” Minerva touched the door with her baby finger and it opened some more. The child peeked into the room and looked about until she found Winifred. She took an innocent measure of the whole room and then stepped slowly up to the side of the bed. Minerva was more afraid than she had been out in the hall. She was even now missing Belle because Belle was a certainty she knew about and Winifred could see all that in her face. She touched the girl’s shoulder, recognizing the shawl she had brought from Philadelphia in what she had joked to Skiffington was her “dowry trunk.” Winifred lightly touched Minerva’s cheek, the first and last black human being she would ever touch.

“I heard you cryin,” Minerva said.

“A bad dream,” Winifred said.

Minerva looked about the room some more, half expecting to see Skiffington. She was trying to remember all she had been taught about the proper decorum with a mistress. Concern about her well-being was certainly one thing Belle had told her about. “It a really bad dream?” the girl asked.

Winifred thought. “Bad enough, I suppose.”

“Oh,” Minerva said. “Oh.” She looked around again.

“Are you hungry?” Winifred said.

“Yes, mistress,” Minerva said, both hands now resting on the bed.

“Then we must eat. And we must find a new and better name for me. But first, you and I must eat.”

Three weeks later William Robbins and four other major landowners summoned Sheriff Gilly Patterson and John Skiffington to Robbins’s home. Robbins had not been able to let go of the sale of Toby and his sister to the man he had met on the road and he was able to convince the four others that something threatening was loose in the land. He was never definite about any of it, but if William Robbins said a storm was coming, then it did not matter how blue and pleasant the sky was and how much the chickens strutted happily about the yard.

Robbins expressed dissatisfaction with Patterson’s vigilance, hinted that while Patterson and Skiffington slept, abolitionists were spiriting away their livelihood to some fool’s idea of nigger heaven in the North. He had become convinced that the man on the road had come into their county and waited on the road and befriended him with the one aim of stealing Toby and his sister. Robbins, for the first time, broached the idea of a militia.

“This is a peaceful land, William,” Sheriff Patterson said. “We have no need for anything more than what we got. Me and John are doing a good job.” Patterson liked what little authority he had and was concerned that anything else would be a usurper. And he had never liked the idea of Robbins riding into town in broad open daylight any day of the week to be with a nigger and her nigger children.

“Gilly, how many slaves you got?”

“None, William. You know that.” Four of the men were on Robbins’s verandah, including the sheriff and three of the landowners. One of the landowners was standing beside Deputy Skiffington on the ground. Skiffington had had to hear Patterson’s complaining about coming to Robbins’s place all the way out there. “I ain’t no fetch and carry, John,” Patterson had said to Skiffington. “But thas what they’re making me into. I didn’t come across that Atlantic Ocean to be a fetch and carry man.” All trace of the accent he had brought across the ocean as a little boy had disappeared a long time ago. He spoke like any average white Virginia man walking down the road.

Robbins said, “Well, Gilly, you don’t know then. You don’t know what the difficulty is in keeping this world going right. You ride around, keeping the peace, but that ain’t got nothin to do with running a plantation fulla slaves.”

“I never said it did, William. This is a peaceful place here in Manchester, thas about all I’m sayin,” Patterson said. He liked the sound of the word peaceful right then and was looking for a way to use it again before he left.

“That was yesterday,” Robbins said. “Yesterday’s peace. Way yesterday. Even now, I can remember that mess with that Turner nigger and them others. Even now, even today. My wife talks about it. My wife cries about it. That wasn’t something he could have thought of on his own. That abolitionist just about walked in here and walked out the door with my property.”

“That ain’t what I heard,” Patterson said. “I heard it was a straight open deal. Straight sale, William.”

“You can hear the wind but it ain’t me whispering in your ear.” Robbins stood up and walked to the edge of the verandah and crossed his arms. He had seen Philomena the day before and had come away with a sour memory of her talking about Richmond and how happy they could be there. The other men on the verandah stayed seated and Patterson leaned forward in his chair, studied the grain of the wooden floor.

Patterson said, “John and me’ll do a little extra duty, if thas what got everyone tied up in a fritter. My job is to protect everybody, to make sure everybody can sleep right every night in a peaceful way, and if that ain’t happenin, then I’ll make it happen.”

One of the landowners on the porch, Robert Colfax, said, “Bill, how that stick with you?” Neither Robbins nor Colfax would know it for a very long time but that day was the high point of their friendship. They were now heading down the other side of the mountain with it.

Robbins said nothing.

“Bill? How that set with you, Bill?” Colfax said.

Robbins turned round, uncrossed his arms and ran his hand through his hair. “I’ll take that,” he said. “For now, I’ll take that. But if anything more were to happen…” He sat down again and raised the hand without his wedding ring and a servant appeared at his side. “Bring us something.” “Yessir.” The black man disappeared and reappeared soon after with drinks. Patterson said he wanted nothing to drink, that he and Skiffington had to get back. He stood and in a moment Henry appeared with his horse and Skiffington’s horse.

“I promise peace and thas what I’ll deliver,” Patterson said. “Good day to one and all, gentlemen.” He stepped out to the horse and Henry handed him the reins. Skiffington was already on his horse.

The men on the verandah and the landowner now alone in the yard said, “Good day.”

Patterson hung on as sheriff for two more years, until 1843, when Robbins said Patterson was doing nothing as property just up and walked away. Tom Anderson, a forty-six-year-old slave, disappeared in 1842, but it was never clear if he had indeed run away. His master, a sometime preacher with the same name, owed $350 to a man in Albemarle County and had promised Tom the slave in payment. Rather than pay the debt, some said, Tom the preacher probably sold Tom the slave and pocketed the $450 the world knew Tom the slave was worth. Tom the preacher always claimed “my Tom” had run away, even blamed the abolitionists, and he forever pleaded poor to the Albemarle man he owed the debt to. Since Tom the preacher had nothing more the Albemarle man cared about, the debt was all but forgotten, although in his will-revised for the last time in 1871 when slavery wasn’t that kind of issue anymore-the Albemarle man listed “Tom Anderson, 46 Year Old SLAVE, red Hair,” as one of his assets. In early 1843, after four other slaves had ostensibly run away, a very self-confident fourteen-year-old slave girl, Ophelia, disappeared, also without an explanation that satisfied everyone. Some white people attributed that disappearance to her jealous and possibly murderous mistress, who had been educated in Paris, Venice and Poughkeepsie, New York, and who returned home to Virginia with a tomcat of an Italian husband who had never seen black people before coming to America. But slaves in Manchester County said Ophelia had met Jesus’ mother one late afternoon on the main road people took to get to Louisa County and that Mary, hearing Ophelia sing, had decided right then that she didn’t want heaven if it came without Ophelia. Mary asked Ophelia about coming with her and eating peaches and cream in the sunlight until Judgment Day and Ophelia shrugged her shoulders and said, “That sounds fine. I ain’t got nothin better to do right at the moment. Ain’t got nothin to do till evenin time anyway.”

In the history of Manchester County, the end of Sheriff Patterson’s long tenure when he was only thirty-eight would be a small thing-way down on the list of historical events, after the death in 1820 of the virgin Mistress Taylor in her hundred-and-second year and the snowstorm that brought ten inches in late May 1829 and the slave boy Baker and the two white Otis boys who burst spontaneously into flames in front of the dry goods store in 1849. Patterson stayed on but he was crippled and he never got over having been summoned by Robbins like a child out to his plantation, and a nigger child at that. The last straw for all of them, from Robbins to Colfax to white men who could not even afford slaves, was that Rita thing, which grew into something larger than it actually was, thanks to Robbins. Rita, the woman who became a second mother to the boy Henry Townsend. After the Rita thing, everyone agreed that a change would do the whole county good and would put a stop to what Robbins had begun to call “a hemorrhaging of slaves.” So Patterson resigned, took himself back to that English town near the Scottish border where his people had lived for centuries. He spent all the rest of his years as a sheep farmer and became known as a good shepherd, “a man born to it.” His health improved tremendously from what it had been in America, but the health of his wife, a Scot from Gretna Green who was hard of hearing, never returned to what it had been in her early, happy years in the United States. Whenever people in that part of the world asked Patterson about the wonders of America, the possibilities and the hope of America, Patterson would say that it was a good and fine place but all the Americans were running it into the ground and that it would be a far better place if it had no Americans.

John Skiffington had come to love and respect Patterson, but it took him less than a day to consider the suggestion from Robbins and Colfax that he become the new sheriff, that he, as Robbins put it, “take up the mantle.” Indeed, Skiffington believed he could be a better peacekeeper, given Patterson’s growing irascibility. Though his marriage was two years old, he and Winifred still considered themselves newlyweds; two years wasn’t even a full blink of God’s eye. Skiffington wanted a good life for his bride and he thought a sheriff’s life, and not that of someone’s deputy, would bring that. He felt he might make a reputation that he could carry to a greater job elsewhere, even to something in Philadelphia, where Winifred often said she wanted to return. A man he knew in Halifax County had gone from deputy to state delegate in less than a generation, less time than it took for a boy to grow into a man. Skiffington loved the South, but as a man with a woman from the North, he gradually became comfortable thinking he could live happy in Philadelphia or in any other part of the country and consider himself just another American who had become what he was because of what the South had given and taught him. Whenever he and Winifred visited his in-laws in Philadelphia, Skiffington never returned to the South without paying his respects to the place where Benjamin Franklin had died. He considered Franklin the second greatest American, after George Washington, and before Thomas Jefferson.

Though Manchester County had money for it, Skiffington did not at that time take on a deputy, having always thought that Patterson had taken him on as a favor to his father. He could do alone what needed to be done. But Skiffington, mindful of the Caesars who controlled all that did not belong to God, took a hint from Colfax and Robbins and assembled a team of twelve patrollers to serve as “nocturnal aides,” slave patrollers. He split Manchester County into three parts and appointed a nightly team of three men for each section. Except for one man who was Cherokee, they were all poor whites, the patrollers, and among them there were only two who had slaves to their names. One was Barnum Kinsey, then considered by everyone to be the poorest white man in the county, “saved,” as one neighbor said, “from bein a nigger only by the color of his skin.” Barnum’s only slave, Jeff, was fifty-seven when his master became a patroller; the slave had been part of his second wife’s dowry, along with five square yards of green silk that had wonderful golden lines running through it, silk so fabulous people said a person could get on it and ride away into the sun. Jeff died at sixty-two, after being unable to work for almost a year and after being cared for all that time by Barnum and his wife. Wherever he went after death, Jeff may have been grateful that in his last months, Barnum would read to him from Franklin ’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. “You have to stop all this funnin me with that book, Mr. Barnum,” Jeff would say, laughing. “You and that funny book will be the death of me.” After Jeff died, Barnum had to put his first child from that second marriage to work in his fields. The child was four at the time and by then all the magical green silk with golden lines had been sold off or used up. Sheriff John Skiffington was to say one day of Barnum Kinsey that he was a good man unable to practice in a place that could be hard on people with his kind of religion.

Despite vowing never to own a slave, Skiffington had no trouble doing his job to keep the institution of slavery going, an institution even God himself had sanctioned throughout the Bible. Skiffington had learned from his father how much solace there was in separating God’s law from Caesar’s law. “Render your body unto them,” his father had taught, “but know your soul belongs to God.” As long as Skiffington and Winifred lived within the light that came from God’s law, from the Bible, nothing on earth, not even his duty as a sheriff to the Caesars, could deny them the kingdom of God. “We will not own slaves,” Skiffington promised God, and he promised each morning he went to his knees to pray. Though everyone in the county saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel that they owned her, not in the way whites and a few blacks owned slaves. Minerva was not free, but only in the way a child in a family is not free. In fact, in Philadelphia years later, as she paid for all those posters with Minerva’s picture on them, Winifred Skiffington was to think only one thing-“I must get my daughter back. I must get my daughter back.”

In his day, the sheriff’s office sat next to the general store on Manchester ’s main street; it was moved to a larger facility across the street and next to the hardware store after the War between the States. Skiffington kept a Bible in the jail, on the northwest corner of his desk, and he kept one in his saddlebags. He found it a comfort knowing that wherever he might be, God’s word could be picked up and read. He turned twenty-nine the month he became sheriff. The town and the county went into a period of years and years of what University of Virginia historian Roberta Murphy in a 1948 book would call “peace and prosperity.” For the people who depended upon slaves, this meant, among other things, that not one slave escaped, not until after Henry Townsend died. The historian-whose book was rejected by the University of Virginia Press and finally published by the University of North Carolina Press -would also call Skiffington “a godsend” for the county. This historian was especially drawn to the quirks of the county. In 1851, she noted, for example, a man of two slaves at the eastern end of Manchester had five chickens born on the same day with two heads. Two of the chickens were even said to do a kind of dance when the harmonica was played. People came from as far away as Tennessee and South Carolina to see the five chickens for a charge of one penny. In the history of the county, the chickens, all of which managed to live until 1856, were a momentous event ten places below the tenure of John Skiffington as sheriff, according to this one historian, who became a full professor at Washington and Lee University three years after her book was published.

The Rita thing, which would ultimately bring Skiffington to the job of sheriff in 1843, began with Mildred and Augustus Townsend buying their own son Henry from William Robbins. Augustus and Mildred came to pick up their boy a few days after they made the last payment. They waited on the road that Sunday and about noon Rita, the second mother to Henry, came out with the boy. His groom clothes belonged to Robbins so he came out to his parents barefoot and in some secondhand clothes that Robbins had thrown in for free because the Townsends had never been late with a payment. There was nothing to do but for the boy to get into the back of the wagon after he and Rita had hugged good-bye. “I see you later, Rita,” Mildred said. “I see you later,” Rita said. “I see you later, Rita,” Henry said. What would amaze all involved was that Robbins never suspected the Townsends, and Henry, who became as close to Robbins as Robbins’s own son Louis, would never say a word. Rita came out into the road, which she knew she was not supposed to do, and stood with her arms folded when she was not waving bye-bye to the boy. The moment the wagon took off, she began to vomit, and all she could think, between the tears, was how much she had enjoyed that dinner, now lost to the road. And she vomited again-thinking that this time it was that little breakfast of one stolen egg and a slice of an old pig’s ear that would have been green in another hour or two if she hadn’t cooked it. She took the bottom of her frock and wiped her mouth. Being that it was noon, the sun was high. The sun for a moment went behind a cloud and when it emerged, she took a step toward the departing wagon. She wiped her tears and then she began to run, and in the moments it took for the sun to go behind another cloud, she had caught up with the wagon and had hold of the back of it. Augustus wasn’t driving the wagon very fast because he had his family together again and all time was now spread out before him over the valley and the mountains forever and ever. Henry soon took hold of Rita’s other hand. Augustus and Mildred were facing ahead, toward home. “Daddy,” Henry said quietly as he watched Rita. His legs dangling off the edge of the wagon, he alone was facing back, toward the Robbins plantation. “Daddy.” Augustus turned in his seat and saw Rita. “What you doin, woman?”

”Don’t leave me here. Please don’t leave me here,” Rita managed to say. The wagon was dragging her when she wasn’t able to run along and it was all Henry could do to hold on to her. Augustus stopped. She climbed aboard and pulled Henry into her arms. “Please please. Lord Jesus, please.”

“Go back now,” Mildred said and Augustus repeated her words. The sun was coming full again and the clouds drifted away and so there was even more light on what wasn’t yet a crime, just a minor offense-two lashes of the whip on Rita’s back and a scolding to the free and clear Townsends, even the boy, who should have known better even if his parents were to claim they didn’t. “You go back,” Mildred and Augustus said together. Henry, beginning to understand the weight of the problem, began to cry, but he clung to Rita as much as she was clinging to him. Augustus got down and pulled at Rita. “Go way. Go way, woman,” he said, looking about, waiting for Robbins or the overseer or some slave to come out and bear witness to it all. Augustus trembled and he saw the sun move in that doomed way a dying man sees a clock’s hour and minute hands move; worse was the promise from the much faster second hand on the clock that all their backs would be whipped raw before sundown. “Please go way, Rita. Please.”

“Don’t leave me here, Augustus. I never been bad not one day to Henry. Tell him, Henry, bout what a good mother I been to you.”

“Yes, Daddy, she been a good mother.” He turned and looked at Mildred. “Mama, she been a good mama.”

“It don’t matter. Don’t kill us like this, Rita.” Augustus raised his hands and shook them at the universe. “Bad mother, good mother, it don’t matter.” He knelt to halt the tears. Mildred got down and came to him. “Augustus,” she said and she was followed by Henry saying, “Daddy, daddy.” In less than an hour, he had said “Daddy” more times than he had in three years. Augustus stood up. “Augustus,” Mildred said. She touched his chest and he knew. “We all be dead by mornin,” he said. He got back up on the wagon, and after he had taken the reins, he was silent as he saw time rolling back toward him from the valley and from the mountains. Mildred told Rita to lay down and she and Henry covered her with a blanket. When Mildred got back up, her husband said, “You got your free papers?” “Yes,” she said. “You got yours?” They were the same questions they had asked before setting out every Sunday from home, but now he added, “You got Henry’s bill a sale?” “Yes,” Mildred said. Augustus nodded and commanded the mules to go. “Up,” he said. “Go up.” He looked back once and when he saw the gray lump that was Rita and saw even farther back the opening to Robbins’s plantation where he had been and his wife had been and his child had been, he commanded the mules to go faster.

He sat all night waiting and thinking of what he could do. Rita, as if trying to disappear, went to a corner of the kitchen in the house Augustus had not long completed. She told the Townsends she was afraid to accept a bed upstairs, lest she have the comfort of it to get out of her mind for the rest of her life. No one came Monday and no one came Tuesday. Very early that Tuesday morning Augustus began collecting the walking sticks he had carved and which he was sending to an Irish merchant in New York. He wrapped each stick in burlap. After he had placed the third one in the wooden box, he stopped and looked over at Rita, sitting up and asleep in the corner. “Rita,” he said in a whisper. She woke and immediately stood up, sensing the end. She could not see all the white men and all the white men’s horses who had come for her, but she nevertheless raised her hands high to surrender. “Come here,” Augustus whispered. He took out the three wrapped sticks and told her to get in the box. Her first thought was a coffin but only white people got coffins that nice.

When she was in it, with her head just an inch or so from the top and her feet with a little less than that from the bottom, he put wrapped walking sticks to either side of her. He had planned to send at least forty sticks to the merchant in New York, but he judged now that the box would take no more than seventeen. Rita’s people had always been people of more bones than meat and muscle, and at long last that was a blessing. Augustus had always wondered what type of New York people bought his walking sticks, what kinds of places they wandered to with them, and that was one thing on his mind as he wrapped sticks and smiled at Rita. There was one stick upon which Augustus had carved Adam at the base. Adam was holding up Eve who was holding up Cain who was holding up Abel and so on and so on. After fourteen or more other figures, including his idea of the king and queen of England, there was George Washington. Rita, not knowing, not caring what was on the stick, but knowing only that she might get another day of sun, took that wrapped stick of Adam and his people and held it. “You get out now and lemme make some holes for the air.” Once he finished, he put her back in and fitted the top on the box. “How that?” he asked her through one of the holes once the top was on. “It be good. It be real good, Augustus,” she said. Before he woke her in the corner, she had been dreaming of work-she had planted seeds in her rows and finished long before everyone else and she was waiting for the overseer to direct her to more work. Just before Augustus whispered her name, she had raised both her hands so that the overseer might see that she was waiting and was not just slacking.

Near the end of Augustus’s work on the box, after he had padded it with burlap, Mildred and Henry came down from upstairs and watched Augustus. It was a little after six in the morning. One rooster crowed, then another, and then another. The four people took the box and the sticks out to the wagon. “Fill these here with water,” Augustus said, handing two flasks to Henry before stepping back to consider the box. Augustus put a clean rag with a few biscuits next to the right of where Rita’s head would go. Augustus moved a stick just a bit and put the filled flasks in the space on the other side of where her head would be. He was surprised at the ease of how he worked, no trembling of the hands, as if he had been born just to put a woman in a box and send her to New York. He believed whistling inside or outside the house was bad luck, but right then as he worked, he was tempted to whistle. Finally, he turned to Rita, held out his hand and helped her up onto the wagon and into the box. Before he nailed her in, Mildred said, “Rita, honey, I see you in the bye and bye. Lord willin.” Rita said, “Mildred, baby, I see you one day in the bye and bye. The Lord wouldn’t hurt us so we couldn’t see each other in the bye and bye.” Rita held on to the stick with Adam and Eve holding up their descendants, and that was the last the three of them ever saw of her. Mildred would dream about her often. She would be walking in a cemetery and would come upon a body, Rita’s, that had not yet been buried. “I see you later,” the dead Rita would say. “Yes, you promised you would,” was all Mildred could manage as she picked up a shovel to begin digging.

Henry accompanied his father into town to the shipping agent, talking to Rita the whole trip, and by two o’clock the box was gone. The father and the son watched the train go away, waiting for it to stop on the tracks and back up and have all the world come up to pay witness to the crime of stealing a white man’s property. But the train did not stop. “How she gon do her business?” Henry asked when the train and the people and the engine smoke were all gone. “A little bit at a time,” Augustus said.

About halfway the trip home, the man realized that these had been his son’s first days of freedom. He and Mildred had planned a week of celebration, culminating with neighbors coming by the next Sunday. Augustus said, “You feelin any different?”

“Bout what?” Henry said. He was holding the reins to the mules.

“Bout bein free? Bout not bein nobody’s slave?”

“No, sir, I don’t reckon I do.” He wanted to know if he was supposed to, but he did not know how to ask that. He wondered who was waiting now for Robbins to come riding up on Sir Guilderham.

“Not that you need to feel any different. You can just feel whatever you want to feel.” Augustus remembered now that Henry had told on him to Robbins about pushing him some years ago, and it occurred to him that if Robbins were ever to learn about Rita, Henry would be the one to tell him. He wondered if all would have been different if he had bought the boy’s freedom first, before Mildred’s. “You don’t have to ask anybody how to feel. You can just go on and do whatever it is you want to feel. Feel sad, go on and feel sad. Feel happy, you go on and feel happy.”

“I reckon,” Henry said.

“Oh, yes,” Augustus said. “I know so. I’ve had a little experience with this freedom situation. It’s big and little, yes and no, up and down, all at the same time.”

“I reckon,” Henry said again. The strange thing was that it would be the second black person Henry Townsend bought-not the first, not Moses who became his overseer-that would trouble him after the purchase. He knew by then what Augustus and Mildred felt about what he was doing. That second person was Zeddie, the cook, and he purchased her from a man down from Fredericksburg who had a lot of five slaves to sell and had the most informative leaflet full of the history of those slaves. Much of what he had written was just fiction, because that was the kind of slave sellers Fredericksburg, Virginia, produced. Being black, Henry could not in those days purchase a slave outright in Manchester County. He got his second slave through Robbins. It might well be that-in addition to thinking about his parents-Henry didn’t feel Zeddie was worth the money Robbins paid for her; Robbins had been trying to teach him after he sold Moses to Henry that every man felt he had been snookered after buying or selling a slave. She a good cook, the Fredericksburg man-patting his watermelon-sized stomach-said to Robbins about Zeddie, her handkerchief-covered head down, her hands clasped before her, her feet in mere wisps of shoes that would have blown away had she not been standing in them. Henry stood at the very back of the market, and a stranger seeing him might have thought he was someone’s servant waiting for the market to close and have his master take him back home. Using Henry’s money, Robbins did all Henry’s purchases of slaves before 1850 when a delegate from Manchester had the law changed. Most white men knew that when they sold a slave to Robbins, they were really selling to Henry Townsend. Some refused to do it. Henry was, after all, only a nigger who got big by making boots and shoes. Who knew what kind of ideas he had in his head? Who knew what a nigger really planned to do with other niggers?

“You just think any way you want,” Augustus said to Henry as the wagon neared home, “and it’ll be fine.”

It was forty-one hours before Rita in the box got to New York. The box was opened with a crowbar by the merchant’s wife, a broad-shouldered Irish woman he had met on the HMS Thames’s twentieth trip to America. The Irish woman’s first husband had died only one day out of Cork Harbor, leaving her alone with five children. The captain had the husband’s body-coffined only in the clothes the man had died in and his head wrapped in a piece of family lace-tossed overboard after ten Lord’s Prayers and ten Hail Marys were spoken by the man’s oldest child, a boy of eight. The boy, Timothy, had struggled through ten of each when the captain, a German Protestant, thought one of each would have done. An Irish prayer was obviously worth only a tenth of what a German prayer was worth. The boy could not bear to see his father go and everyone assembled could tell that in all the words of the prayers. A month into the voyage the Irish woman’s youngest child died, a girl of some five months-twenty Lord’s Prayers and twenty Hail Marys from Timothy. A coffin of lace for baby Agnes, that lace being the last of the family fortune.

Mary O’Donnell had been nursing that baby, and the day after Agnes was committed to the sea, her milk stopped flowing. She thought it only a natural result of grieving for Agnes. She would go on to have three more children with her second husband, the seller of Augustus Townsend’s walking sticks, but with each child the milk did not return. “Where is my milk?” Mary asked God with each of the three children. “Where is my milk?” God did not give her an answer and he gave her not one drop of milk. With the second and third children, she asked Mary the mother of Jesus to intercede with God on her behalf. “Didn’t he give you milk for your child?” she asked Mary. “Wasn’t there milk aplenty for Jesus?”

Mary O’Donnell Conlon would never live comfortably in America, would never come to feel it was her own dear country. Long before the HMS Thames had even seen the American shore, America, the land of promise and hope, had reached out across the sea and taken her husband, a man who had taken her heart and kept it, and America had taken her baby-two innocent beings in the vastness of a world with all kinds of things that could have been taken first. She held nothing against God. God was simply being God. But she could not forgive America and saw it as the cause of all her misery. Had America not called out to her first husband, not sung to him, they could have stayed home and managed somehow in that county in Ireland where children, even old children, had the pinkest cheeks.

Mary Conlon’s hair stayed all black until her dying day. She would wake one morning as an old woman with a gray hair or two or three and the next morning those gray hairs would be black again. “Such strong black hair,” she would say to God when she was seventy-five, “such hair and all I wanted was a little milk.” Her children stayed devoted to her, but none was closer and more devoted than Timothy, who was affectionately known as his mother’s pet. He had worried himself sick on the ship to America, thinking his mother would be the next to die. Not even a million Lord’s Prayers and a million Hail Marys would have let him consign his mother to the sea.

It was Timothy, then twelve years old, who was at his mother’s side when she opened the box from Augustus Townsend. “Don’t send me back,” Rita said in the darkness as each nail was pried loose and the top of the box was gradually separated from the body of the box and the feeble light little by little began to seep in on her. Each nail Mary pried loose made such an awful noise to Rita, awful and as loud as the coming of an army. As the light came in, Rita began to feel ashamed because of her waste. A seven-hour stretch out of Baltimore had had her lying on her stomach because the handlers ignored the Manchester shipping agent’s words marked in black paint on the top-“This Side Up With Extreme Care.” Mary gave no expression when she first heard and then saw the black woman through the first good opening. Rita, once the box was open all the way, covered her eyes because even that weak light in the storeroom was too much for her to bear. “Don’t send me back. Don’t send me back.” Rita did not know if she was in New York or merely in a house only a plantation away from William Robbins. She could barely move and her mouth was dry because she had allowed herself only five sips of water during the entire trip. A journey into possible death could take a long time and so water shouldn’t be wasted. Her body was too dry to even produce tears, and her words came out as if her mouth were stuffed with rags. Slowly, she opened her eyes and saw Mary. “Don’t send me back.” And then, seeing the boy Timothy for the first time, Rita’s stiffened arms managed to offer the stick of Adam and Eve and their descendants to him. The boy, who was as expressionless as his mother, took the walking stick as if that was what he had been waiting for all along.

1 Liaison. The Warmth of Family. Stormy Weather. | The Known World | 3 A Death in the Family. Where God Stands. Ten Thousand Combs.