5 That Business Up in Arlington. A Cow Borrows a Life from a Cat. The Known World.
Because Manchester County was mostly a tranquil place, there were months and months when Sheriff John Skiffington had no more to do than tell a drunk to go home, and often that drunk was Barnum Kinsey, one of his patrollers. Once or twice every few months Skiffington and his wife Winifred would accept an invitation for supper from a family, and perhaps stay a night or two when it was too far to return home the same day. They loved the companionship of others, especially Winifred, and, too, Skiffington knew the value of having voters know him as a good man and a good husband, separate from being the good face of the law. If they stayed with a family of means similar to their own, the supper might include couples from the same class and perhaps one, but generally only one, from William Robbins’s class. They also stayed with people in Robbins’s sphere, but when they ate with them, Skiffington and Winifred represented their class alone. As for the class that produced the patrollers, they were a hand-to-mouth people and invitations to anywhere were very rare.
In the spring of 1844, a good many white people in Manchester County remained uneasy about news from other places about slave “restlessness” that had gone on a few years before. In the North, people called it slave uprisings, but in much of Virginia the word uprisings had an abolitionist undertone and was felt to be too strong for what many slaveowners preferred to characterize as “a family squabble,” instigated by unknowns not part of the family. One of those who could not shake her uneasiness was a fifty-four-year-old cousin of Winifred’s, Clara Martin. She lived in the most eastern part of Manchester, as far east as Augustus and Mildred Townsend lived in the west. Clara had a distant relative up in Arlington who had a neighbor whose slave cook had been caught, after many such meals, putting ground-up glass in the neighbor’s food. The distant relative wrote to Clara that it was “especially heinous” because the neighbor had raised the cook, Epetha, from a pickaninny, taught her all there was to know about a kitchen, “up and down, and sideways.” Clara read the letter over and over, trying to imagine how the glass could have been ground up so fine that the poor, trusting woman did not know what she was eating. Had she been served greens all those times, Clara wondered, and so was fooled into thinking that the glass was nothing more than grit because the greens hadn’t been properly cleaned? Had she even once reprimanded the cook about unwashed greens? Was the glass still in her, tearing up her insides because, unlike real food, it did not know the right way to come out?
Clara Martin had but one slave to her name, fifty-five-year-old Ralph, a thin man with hair down to his shoulders who suffered with rheumatism throughout the winter. All through those months, hobbled, he moved through a world of thick molasses, suppressing a moan with each step. But come March, his bones, as he put it, got happy again. Ralph had been in her husband’s family since his birth and had come along when she, at twenty, married “my dear sweet Mr. Martin.” Her husband had been dead fifteen years, and their only child, a son, had gone to find an eternally elusive happiness in untamed California, “on the other side of the world,” as Clara once put it in a letter to her Arlington relative. So for years Clara had lived alone, peacefully, with Ralph, who did the cooking, among other tasks, for her. Her nearest neighbor was a long walk away into another county. And then the slaves became restless in other Virginia counties, followed by that awful letter about a once faithful slave up in Arlington who didn’t want to do the usual recipes anymore.
That spring of 1844 on a Friday, Skiffington and Winifred went out to spend time with Clara. They left Minerva-then twelve and coming into her own-at home; Winifred, and even Skiffington, might think of her as a kind of daughter but everyone knew who was included in a supper invitation and who was not. There was but one prisoner in the jail, and Skiffington’s father had agreed to feed and watch over him. The prisoner, an amiable Frenchman named Jean Broussard, had murdered his Scandinavian partner, the first murder of a white person in the county in twenty-six years. Broussard liked to talk. He liked to sing even more. Skiffington had grown tired of Broussard calling him “Monsieur Sheriff.” Indicted only three days before Skiffington left for Clara’s, Broussard had been waiting for Virginia authorities to find a judge to come out his way for a trial. Broussard said he was innocent, and he said American justice would ultimately proclaim it so.
By mid-morning of that Friday, Skiffington and Winifred had reached the plantation of Robert and Alfreda Colfax, a white family with ninety-seven slaves to their names, and it was there that they took a twelve-thirty dinner. Robert had a collection of antique European pistols that he loved to show anyone he felt was capable of enjoying them without letting envy intrude. His problem was that most men envied, so he could not show the pistols the way he wanted. Robbins, a good friend to Colfax, did not envy and they often enjoyed them together, sometimes well into the night. Skiffington also did not envy. Colfax’s sons thought the pistols no more than toys. So he loved when Skiffington visited because they could, together, with such care, take down the pistols one by one from the cabinet Augustus Townsend had made and admire what some German or Italian had crafted a long time ago as if his life had depended upon it.
The Friday Skiffington and Winifred arrived about three o’clock, Clara Martin was standing in the yard, and Ralph came from around the back and took their horse and carriage. “Good mornin, Mr. Skiffington. Good mornin to you, Miss Skiffington,” he said. His long hair was tied back with a rope.
Skiffington and Winifred said good afternoon. Ralph turned and looked at them, then nodded. “Yes. Yes, good noon,” he said. Clara watched him lead the horse and carriage away and when he was gone, she gave Skiffington a knowing look. “What am I gonna do with him, John?” she said.
He smiled. “He’s fine, Clara. A little slow, but he’s fine.” Skiffington had had his patrollers look in on her from time to time but that had not been enough. “John, she skittish as a colt,” Barnum Kinsey told Skiffington after one visit. “And to tell you the truth, John, I ain’t seen nothin for her to be skittish about. I looked but I couldn’t find it.”
They ate a little after five, with Ralph preparing the meal and then retiring to his room that had been built onto the kitchen not long after Clara had married. Clara picked at the food. Winifred and Skiffington ate heartily, hoping that their good appetites would show her that there was nothing to fear. She said nothing but Winifred could see that Clara had lost weight since the last time she saw her. Winifred had had an aunt who had wasted away to skin and bones but that had been from consumption and the woman had lived in Connecticut.
“I’d like you to talk to him,” Clara said to Skiffington after supper. They were in the parlor. Ralph had appeared to take away the dishes and then disappeared again before bringing in coffee some fifteen minutes later. The rope was gone from his hair. Once, some five years before, he had come into the parlor and found Clara struggling to comb and brush her hair. “Oh, my goodness,” she kept saying. “Better I should have no hair at all than all this mess.” “Now don’t you say that, Miss Martin.” “Well, it’s just a mess, Ralph. It most certainly is.” It had been raining all day and it was summer so his bones gave him nothing to complain about. “My sister,” she said, “got the hair God shoulda given me. And she has never appreciated it, I must say. Wondrous red hair. A queen’s hair. Not one day has she thanked God for that hair and yet he lets her keep it right on.” “Yo sister got nothin on you, thas for sure, Miss Martin. Let me now, if that be fine with you,” he said, standing behind her, touching the back of her hand. He had never touched her before in any deliberate way, only in some innocent, accidental way no witness would ever think anything about. Hesitantly, she raised her hand higher and after a few seconds she opened it and he took the brush. There had been thunder and lightning earlier in the day but now there was only rain, falling on the porch, tapping the window, watering the plants in the garden that had gone so long without. “Let me, if that be fine with you,” and he gently worked through her hair. When the brush had done its work, he reached around without asking permission and took the comb, which had been resting in the very center of her lap. There were a few strands of hair in the comb and he took them out and they took their own time falling to the floor. She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, thinking, Yo sister got nothin on you. He spent an hour on it, brushing and combing and applying a little sweet oil, and before he was done, she had fallen asleep, which was unusual for her because she always said the bed was the only place where her body could sleep. She awoke hours later to find Ralph gone and her hair in plaits, soft to her fingers, callused and bony. She called his name, once and once again, and when she saw the candle, dancing with a feeble light, and became aware of a silence that seemed to have a kind of voice, she thought there was something wrong in calling him like that and so closed her mouth. She sighed and leaned back in the chair. She soon fell asleep again and stayed much of the night in the chair. The rain went on for another two days and he did her hair each of those days but never again after that. “That should do, Ralph,” she said that final time. “That will do for now.” “Yessum.”
As they drank their coffee, Clara said again to Skiffington, “I’d like you to talk to him.”
“Now what would I say to him, Clara?” Skiffington said.
“I don’t know. Somethin sheriff like. Somethin a sheriff would say to a miscreant. A possible miscreant. ‘I have my eyes on you, you possible miscreant.’ ”
Winifred laughed. She had been drinking coffee at that moment and now set the cup on the tiny table beside her. The laughter came from what Clara had said but also because the word miscreant reminded her of school days and spelling tests in Philadelphia. Her husband had been sheriff for about a year. He called her “Mrs. Skiffington,” and she called him “Mr. Skiffington,” except when he had displeased her or made her unhappy, and then he was “John” for days and days.
“It is all so very serious, John,” Clara said. “It really is. You have no servants to speak of, only a child you have raised. But Ralph is not a child, and the world is changing from once upon a time.”
“But you’ve known him for a very long time, haven’t you?” Skiffington said.
Winifred turned to Skiffington. “Since before God sent the flood to Noah, probably.”
Clara said, “Time has no meaning anymore, Winnie. Loyalty either. The world is turning upside down.”
“Has he said something to you to make you afraid?” Skiffington said. “Something,” and he winked at his wife, “something I could arrest him on.”
“No, no, Lord no. There is just…,” and Clara held her hand out before her and fanned it a few times. “There is just the miasma. The miasma he and I have.”
Winifred thought: “M-I-A-S-M-A.”
“What is that?” Skiffington asked. “What is that word?” It certainly wasn’t one he had ever come across in the Bible.
“It’s the air, Mr. Skiffington,” Winifred said, then tapped her forefinger to her closed lips as she fought with her memory for a better meaning. “It’s the atmosphere. It’s the air.”
“Bad air,” Clara said. “Bad air.”
“I’ll go out to talk with him before I leave,” Skiffington said.
“What will you say?” Clara said. “Don’t say anything to hurt his feelings. Please don’t say anything mean, John.”
“Clara, either he is a miscreant or he isn’t. I don’t know what I’ll say. None of it will come to me until I’m standing before him. But it won’t be anything harsh because I think he’s a good servant, and I have to tell you that or I wouldn’t be honest with you. He’s served you all these years and he will go on serving you, despite all the foolishness you hear from somewhere else.”
Clara sighed. “A half a loaf is better than nothin.”
“A slice of bread is better than nothing,” Winifred said.
After the women had retired for the night, Skiffington remained in the parlor, reading the Bible, as he often did at home, after Winifred and Minerva had gone to bed. His father smoked a pipe at night before sleeping, and while the son had tried to take it up, he had not found the enjoyment his father had. It was a pity, he often thought, because the words of God sometimes put his mind in a turmoil that a pipe might calm.
He heard Ralph in the back and got up, placing the Bible open to his page on the chair. In the kitchen, Ralph was in the last stages of cleaning up before going to bed.
“Is there somethin I might get you this mornin, Mr. Skiffington?” he said as Skiffington stood in the doorway. “We got some more that pie you was so fond of. Put a nice little piece on a plate for you, send you off to sleep like a baby.”
“No, Ralph. I just wanted to come in and say good night. I wanted to make sure everything was fine with you. I know caring for Miss Clara can be a mighty chore. You have served her well and she knows that.”
“Night? Good night?”
“Yes. I just wanted to say good night.”
“Yessuh. Thank you. And good night, suh.”
“Yes, well… Good night.”
“And good night to you, suh. A good night.” His hair was in the rope again. “No pie? It’s fine pie if I say so myself.”
“No, thank you. But good night. And thank you for a fine meal. For the pie, too.”
“And thank you, too, suh. A good night. And good mornin when mornin comes.”
“Good night.” Skiffington left, the awkwardness still in the air. He went back to the parlor and picked up the Bible where he had left off. But that chapter was not what he felt he needed right then so he flipped through the book and settled on Job, after God had given him so much more, far more than what he had before God devastated his life.
He told Clara the next day that he had spoken with Ralph and that all was well, that she was not to worry anymore. “Worry bout rain for your garden, and don’t go any higher on the worry ladder,” he told her. She smiled.
He had business with two patrollers-Harvey Travis and Clarence Wilford-several miles from her, and after dinner, near one o’clock, he set out on a horse Ralph saddled for him. The Saturday was cloudy but he was confident that he could get there and back before the rain, if rain there was.
When the group of patrollers were formed, Barnum Kinsey and Oden Peoples, brother-in-law to Harvey Travis, were the only patrollers who owned slaves. The patrollers were paid $12 a month, mostly from the tax on slaveowners, a levy of 5 cents a slave every other month. (The tax went to 10 cents a slave with the start of the War between the States, and it was enforced through most of 1865.) Barnum Kinsey was exempt from the tax for the time his one slave Jeff was alive, and Oden Peoples was never taxed.
Oden was a full-blooded Cherokee. He had four black slaves. One was his “mother-in-law.” Another was his “wife,” who was half-Cherokee herself, and the other two were their children. His wife had belonged to Oden’s father, and so had the mother-in-law. When Oden took Tassock as his woman, the father threw in her mother because he thought Oden’s woman might be lonely so far away from the village where she had been his slave. Oden’s father liked to go about the world claiming he was a Cherokee chief, the leader of a thousand people, but that was not true, and people, black and white and Indian, would ridicule him about the lie, to his face and behind his back. Chief Tell-A-Lie, they called him.
Oden’s wife was half sister to a woman the patroller Harvey Travis had married. She, too, had been a slave, though full Cherokee, but Travis essentially bought her from Chief Tell-A-Lie and freed her, saying he would never marry a slave.
In so many ways, Travis became Skiffington’s most difficult patroller. But Travis was good at what he did, and Skiffington saw him as a free-ranging cat who couldn’t be tamed but who killed enough mice to make up for his lawlessness.
That cloudy Saturday after dinner at Clara’s, Skiffington rode out because of a dispute Travis had with the patroller Clarence Wilford. Travis had a dying cow that he decided to sell to Clarence and his wife Beth Ann. Harvey got $15 and claimed to Clarence that the cow was a good milker, though in fact more milk fell from the sky than came from the cow. Clarence had eight children and they were getting to the point where they were forgetting what cow milk tasted like. Indeed, his three youngest had only tasted their mother’s milk. So Beth Ann and Clarence bought the cow and waited and waited for the milk to come. “I’ve never known drier teats,” Clarence told his wife. That went on for weeks, with Clarence stewing and growing ever more angry with Harvey. It was so bad that during patrols they would argue and fight and no other patrollers wanted to work with them.
Then, a week before the Saturday John Skiffington showed up, Clarence came out of his house, determined to slaughter the cow and settle for the meat he could get. He knew the problem he would have, for his children had taken a liking to the cow, had even given the thing a number of pet names in the time she was with them. Clarence came out to the barn and found his wife Beth Ann on her haunches milking the cow. She looked up at him and her whole face was wet with tears. “Dear dear Jesus,” she was saying. She was using the water bucket to catch the milk and as she milked with both hands, she was trying to dry the tears from her face with the sleeves of her blouse, lest the tears fall into the milk. “She was mooin out here and I just came in to see what was the matter.”
Clarence went to his wife, kissed her cheek. “Call em,” she said to him, speaking of the children. “Call em all in here.” He stood up from her and stepped back once, twice, three times, then he turned his back and shot around to see if the milk was still there. As if she could read his mind, she took one teat and aimed it at a cat standing to her side. The cat closed its eyes and opened its mouth and drank. Its tail had been in the air, but as it drank, the tail lowered and lowered until it was at last resting on the ground.
The children came in, the big ones carrying the little ones. They all drank from the bucket and when it was empty, their mother filled it again. Then she filled it twice more. Soon, the children, on the barn floor, lay down and fell asleep. Clarence sat beside his wife and after a time he put a hand, the one not stained with milk, to the back of his wife’s head and rubbed her hair. The cow swung its tail and chewed its cud. It farted.
In the end, the parents had to carry all the children into the house to bed because the children did not want to rouse up and walk in. “You know what this means?” Beth Ann said as they carried in the last of the children. “Tell me?” he said. “It means we’ll have to get a new water bucket.”
Harvey Travis wanted the cow back because a cow flowing with milk was not what he had taken $15 for. Clarence had told Skiffington that he had been shot at twice and though he hadn’t seen the shooter, he believed it was Harvey. Beth Ann sent word to Skiffington by patroller Barnum Kinsey: “We will kill him or he will kill us.”
Skiffington got to Clarence’s place and found Beth Ann with two of the children in the garden. Clarence was in the woods and she sent one of the children to fetch him. Skiffington sent the other child to get Harvey, then he and Beth Ann went into the barn so he could see the cow.
“I’m glad you’re here, John,” she said, clapping off the dirt from her hands. Skiffington knew her to be the more fiery of the two. “Maybe you can make some sense of this whole mess. I sure can’t, and Clarence can make less sense than me.” A few chickens scurried as they made their way to the barn. Her long black hair was slightly unkempt, and he saw that it would have taken only a few brush strokes to make it pleasing. The Wilfords were poor but not as poor as the family of Barnum Kinsey.
“I wouldn’t wanna leave here, Beth Ann, without a full settlement.”
“I want you to know I meant what I said about killin Harvey Travis. If it comes to him or the father of my children, I would not hesitate.” Barnum had told Skiffington that word about killing had come from both man and wife. Now he knew that the wife was the sole author, and he could see why Clarence, a man who had craved peace all his life, would want a woman like Beth Ann as his wife.
The barn door was ajar and she forced it open with a hand and a foot.
The cow was scrawnier than Skiffington had imagined, dull yellow with brown spots the size of platters. Dull yellow eyes, too. Something Joseph might have dreamed up and warned Pharaoh about. All that week the Wilford children had been calling the cow Smiley.
When they came out of the barn, Clarence was coming upon them in a trot, sweating, and in little more than a minute, Harvey came over the rise with two of his boys and Clarence’s boy that Skiffington had sent to get him. None of Travis’s children favored him. They all looked like his Cherokee wife, though they were lighter than she was, and that light skin was Travis’s only gift to them.
“You sell Clarence and Beth Ann that cow?” Skiffington asked Travis. Skiffington’s dinner had not set well with him and he was now, suddenly, impatient.
“Yes, I did, John.”
“Well, that should be the end of it, Harvey,” Skiffington said. “The law is on Clarence’s side. Square bargain. Clean deal.”
“Now wait here a minute, John,” Travis said. “Maybe I shoulda got to you first and pled my case, steada bein second to testify like I am.”
“John, you can see what we had to wrestle with out here,” Beth Ann said. “This kinda talk and bullets to keep em company.”
“The only bullets were from your side.” Travis looked at Skiffington. “Or are you to believe all her side on that too? Maybe if Clarence would stiffen up a-”
“I take no side but the right one,” Skiffington said to Travis, “and if you don’t believe that then you can turn around and go home.” He waited. “I ain’t got time to waste on this cow business, Harvey. I don’t want my patrollers actin like this.” He and Harvey were now facing each other. Beth Ann knew enough about life to know when things were dancing their way so she was quiet. Skiffington stepped to Travis so they were but two feet apart. “You tell me this, Harvey: If that cow had died a day after you sold it to him, a day after now. No, not a day, not even a day. One hour after you sold it to him, just long enough for Clarence to lead the thing from your place, over the rise to his place so all them hooves are standing on his land and he owned it free and clear and then it up and drop dead on him, would you give him his money back? Would you think you sold him a dead cow and give him his money back? Now would you?”
“I’d feel it was the right thing maybe, seein as how… I mean after all, the cow didn’t live long anough…”
Skiffington was disappointed in the answer but he knew he should not have been. He took Harvey’s shoulder and they walked away from everyone. “You sold him the cow, Harvey, and there ain’t a thing I can do. There ain’t even nothing President Fillmore can do. You know that if I thought there was something wrong, that if Beth Ann and Clarence was wrong in any way, I would stand up for you. I would move heaven and earth to make it right for you, Harvey. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, John, I do.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t want any more bad things between you two men, not a one. Do you understand me, Harvey?”
“Yes, John, I do.”
“I’ll say this to you: Twice a week you send two of your chaps over here with whatever they can carry to take back some milk. But only two of them chaps, Harvey, and just twice a week. No return trips for that day. One trip and that’s all. And never you or your wife are to come.”
Travis wiped his mouth with his hand, then wiped his brow with his sleeved arm. His eyes teared because he had gotten the worst of it after setting out with a plan five weeks before that should have left him on top with $15. He nodded.
“Stand here,” Skiffington said and went back to Clarence and Beth Ann, who agreed to what he had told Harvey.
“John, am I gonna have any more trouble outa him, shootin trouble?” Beth Ann asked.
“Will this end, John?” Clarence said.
“There won’t be no more. No more of this.”
“By whose word then, John?” Beth Ann said. “His word or your word?”
“First his word, then backed up by my word,” Skiffington said.
“Good,” and she shook Skiffington’s hand and then he shook her husband’s hand.
Skiffington went back to Travis. “If things stay peaceful, then there might be more days with milk for you, Harvey, but that has to come from Clarence and Beth Ann. They can give you more days cause it’s their property.” Harvey nodded. He turned to leave. “And, Harvey, if someone shoots at Clarence again, I will come out to get you, and it will be a different world for you, your wife and your chaps.”
Travis said nothing but shook Skiffington’s hand and collected his children and went down and over the rise. He still had some of the $15 he had received for the cow, but it would not give him the pleasure he had known before he learned that the cow had another life. Skiffington watched him. Travis had a child on either side of him, both with their black Cherokee hair flowing and both almost as dark as their mother. One of Travis’s children looked up and said something to Travis and Travis, before they all disappeared, looked down to answer the child, the man’s head seeming to go down in small stages, heavy with bitterness. The boy nodded at whatever his father had told him.
Riding back to Clara’s, he was surprised that it had gone well. He could tell by the way Harvey walked away holding his children by the hand that he would keep his word and there would be no more trouble with the cow. His stomach continued to bother him. He often told Winifred that he was a man coming apart at all his seams-bad stomach, bad teeth, a twitch in the left leg before falling to sleep. A twitch in the right to wake him during the night.
About midway back to Clara’s, he decided to walk, seeing that there would be no rain and thinking the walk would ease his stomach. He sensed that Clara’s horse was not one to saunter away so he dropped the reins and the horse followed behind him, like a dog. Then the sun came out brighter, then even brighter, and he stopped and took out his Bible from the saddlebag and sat down under a dogwood tree. Before he opened the Bible, he looked all around, at the way the sun poured down over two peach trees and over the hills. The baby’s breath swayed every which way, and as he looked, he grew happier. This is what my God has given me, he thought.
He liked to think at such times that all the people in his life were as contented as he was but he knew the folly of that thought. Clara was good and Winifred and his father and even the child Minerva, growing every day beyond childhood. Maybe Barnum Kinsey the patroller had had a good night and had not awakened with a pained head from a night of drinking. A boy down the road from Skiffington had burned his leg at the fireplace and Skiffington hoped the boy was doing well. He and the boy liked to fish together; the boy knew how to be silent, which was something not easily taught to a child fisherman. He liked the boy very much but he longed for the day when he would have a child of his own.
Skiffington flipped through the pages of the Bible, wanting something to companion his mood. He came to the place in Genesis where two angels disguised as strangers are guests in Lot’s house. The men in the town came to the house, wanting Lot to send out the strangers so that they could use them as they would use women. Lot sought to protect the strangers and offered the men his virgin daughters instead. It was one of the more disturbing passages in the Bible for Skiffington and he was tempted to pass on, to find his way to Psalms and Revelation or to Matthew, but he knew that Lot and the daughters and the angels posing as strangers were all part of God’s plan. The angels blinded the men as they tried to storm Lot’s house, and then, the next morning, the angels laid waste to the town. Skiffington looked up and followed a male cardinal as it flew from left to right and settled in one of the peach trees, a red spot on shimmering green. The female, dull brown, followed, alighting on a branch just above the male’s head. Winifred had always felt such pity for Lot’s wife and what happened to her, but Skiffington had no strong opinion either way about what happened to her.
So he read through the passage, and not for the second time, and not for the third, and not for the fourth. Then he moved on to Psalms, and after four of those he thought it best to get on to Clara’s. The male cardinal was still there but the female had disappeared.
He never worked on Sunday, the Lord’s day, but riding the carriage back to town with Winifred was far from work. After breakfast, Ralph had brought the carriage around and Skiffington and Winifred and Clara came out. “I be wishin yall good mornin,” Ralph said before he disappeared behind the house. “It’s a good day for a ride. A good day for whatever it is a soul want it to be.”
”Yes,” Winifred said, “a good day for everything.”
Clara had been quiet the last evening and just as quiet that morning. Now, her arms folded across her breasts, she watched as Skiffington helped Winifred into the carriage and he came around, kissed her cheek and got in the carriage.
“I’ll take your word that everything will be fine”-and she tipped her head in the direction of the back of the house where Ralph was. They, Clara and Ralph, would live another twenty-one years together. Long before then he became a free man because the War between the States came and found them. Skiffington got into the carriage. With freedom, Ralph got it into his head that he would go elsewhere. He had people in Washington, D.C. But Clara cried and cried and said this old place, this old damn place wouldn’t be the same if Ralph wasn’t traipsing morning, noon and night all about on it. So he chose to stay; his kin in Washington had never been likable people anyway-one of them was a natural-born drunkard.
“You have my word,” Skiffington said, taking the reins from Winifred. “You got that and more.”
“John, I just don’t know what I would do if Ralph ended up murdering me. What would I do, John?” And after that twenty-one years, Clara would die first, asleep in her bed, a knife under her pillow and another beside her in the bed, as close as a lover. Her hair flowed about her head, not done up but loose, the way she sometimes liked it when she slept, the way Ralph’s hair was when it wasn’t held back by the rope.
Skiffington smiled. “I would come out and arrest him. That’s the first thing I would do.”
On that Sunday, the day Skiffington and Winifred left, Clara had been eating Ralph’s cooking for more than twenty-four years. But after that day, even though she knew no more about cooking than a bird sitting on a nest, she fixed her own meals and she sat across from him while he ate what he had prepared and looked at her and spoke about happy times as she ate what she had prepared.
“Mr. Skiffington would come out, arrest him and take him in to jail, Clara,” Winifred said. “Quicker than you could say Jack Rabbit.”
For some reason this seemed to ease Clara’s mind more than anything else he or Winifred had said that weekend. She smiled and smiled and wouldn’t let loose of the smile even as Skiffington took her cheek in his hand and tugged on it twice. The door to her bedroom was always locked. When she did not come down to fix her breakfast the day she died, Ralph went up and knocked. After more than half an hour of knocking and calling her name, he went out, his own breakfast getting cold on the kitchen table, and he walked two miles to the nearest farm, all the way into neighboring Hanover County, and brought back a white man and the white man’s one-armed cousin and the two white men forced the door open. The door had been secured each night for years with two nails.
“Clara, we’ll see you before long, surely before the end of June, unless you come into town,” Winifred said.
“Good, you know how I look forward to Mr. and Mrs. Skiffington. The Skiffingtons have a place at my table anytime.” Ralph would go to live with his people in Washington, for with Clara’s death relatives materialized from high and low and he was then without a home. The relatives sold the land to William Robbins, which angered Robert Colfax. Ralph’s people in Washington were not as bad as he had always thought. The drunkard had found God a week after a Fourth of July and had said good-bye to the bottle for good. Washington was good to the old man’s bones.
They rode home sitting close in the carriage, her arm through his and Skiffington singing a few songs his mother sang to him when he was a child in North Carolina on his cousin Counsel’s place. Then they talked for the first time about what life they wanted in Pennsylvania in a few years when he left the job as the sheriff of Manchester County. She wished to be close to relatives, particularly her sister, in Philadelphia. He wasn’t awfully partial to Philadelphia, but doing a visit up there a year before, they had come upon a nice area around Darby, just outside Philadelphia. There was even a place for him to fish, a good place to teach a son how to be patient and silent and appreciate what God had done for them.
”Will your daddy come? I wouldn’t like to think of him down here without us.”
Skiffington smiled and Winifred leaned her head on his shoulder. “The South is all he knows, but he can fish for souls up there just as easy as he can down here,” he said. His father had taken up evangelism but he was quiet about it, diplomatic, never wanting to force his religion down someone’s throat unless they gave him permission.
“Yes, well, I have a feeling that he’ll like the challenge of the people in Pennsylvania,” Winifred said. “If you present your case in just the right way, they’ll accept.”
“Like you did with me.”
She laughed and raised her head and looked at him. “I would say, Mr. Skiffington, that it was the reverse of that. I was standing in one spot and you walked over to me. I wasn’t raised to live any other way.”
He said nothing.
“And Minerva?” Winifred said.
“She would come, too, that is if she isn’t grown and off on her own when we leave.” He could see Minerva, out in the back of their house, near the chicken coop, reaching up to pick apples, the ones not quite ripe and so best for a pie. “We can make a way for her in Pennsylvania. And if she is grown, then there will be nothing to talk about. It will be her life to do with as she pleases.”
“I want her up there with me as well,” Winifred said. “I would hate to be home without her. I want everybody I love up there, like in a big garden where we wouldn’t want for anything.”
“I think Adam and Eve might have taken that from us,” Skiffington said. “And Pennsylvania may be as far from Eden as we can get.”
“We’ll make our own way. I give you my word.”
“Then I take the pooh back.” She held her hand out before her. “Come back pooh.” She opened her hand and then put it to her open mouth and clamped her mouth shut. “There, pooh is back.” A little farther on she yawned and closed her eyes with her head against his shoulder. He went back to singing. Soon she was asleep but he went on singing anyway, just a mite softer than before.
Minerva was waiting at the gate when they pulled up. She waved and they waved to her. She was almost as tall as Winifred. This was before Skiffington began to think of her in a different way.
”Father Skiffington went to the jail to feed that man,” Minerva said. Carl Skiffington, John’s father, was not above working on Sunday, and besides, he said, feeding a prisoner was a necessity, not a task that could be put off until Monday. Minerva sailed up the front steps of the house and wrapped her arms around the post. She turned and opened the door and the three went in.
She, Minerva, was not a servant in the way the slaves all about her were, for they did not believe they owned her. She did serve, charged with cleaning the house, sharing the job of cooking the meals with Winifred. But they would not have called her a servant. Had she been able to walk away from them, knew north from south and east from west, Skiffington and Winifred would have gone after her, but it would not have been the way he and his patrollers would pursue an escaped slave. A child would have been lost and so parents do what must be done.
The world did not allow them to think “daughter,” though Winifred was to say years later in Philadelphia that she was her daughter. “I must have my daughter back,” she said to the printer making up the posters with Minerva’s picture on them. “I must have my daughter back.”
So she was a daughter and yet not a daughter. She was Minerva. Simply their Minerva. “Minerva, come here.” “Minerva, how does this taste?” “Minerva, I’ll get the cloth for your dress when I come home from the jail.” “Minerva, what would I do without you?” To the white people in Manchester County, she was a kind of pet. “That’s the sheriff’s Minerva.” “That’s Mrs. Skiffington’s Minerva.” And everyone was happy with all of it. As for Minerva, she had known nothing else. “You done growed,” Minerva’s sister was to say years later in Philadelphia.
John Skiffington got to the jail about eight that Monday morning.
“Ah ah, good morning, Monsieur Sheriff,” Jean Broussard said as soon as Skiffington came in the door. “I have missed all of your company, though I must say your p`ere is a charming and most adequate substitute. He says all the time that God is with me, but that is something I knew long ago. God is everywhere in America, especially here with me.”
”Broussard, good morning.”
“I do not want to rush the way the world goes, but I am beginning to think I will not be walking free before I am as old as your p`ere.”
“You say you are innocent, and if that is true, the law will see it and set you free.”
“I am innocent. I am innocent, Monsieur Sheriff.” Broussard had claimed all along that he had been defending himself when he killed his partner, a man from Finland or Norway or Sweden, depending upon the mood the partner was in when he was asked where he was from. When the partner was in a foul mood, he said he was from Sweden. He was Swedish the day he died.
“So much depends on when the circuit judge gets here to try your case,” Skiffington said, hanging his coat on a rack near the door. Broussard’s coat was the only other thing hanging, and it had been hanging there for two weeks. “He gets here, the jury hears you and the whole world belongs to you again. France and any place else you want to go.” Skiffington went to his desk and sat, started looking for paper to petition, once more, for the circuit judge to come. The town had not had a need for a judge since a white man a year before was charged with wounding his wife. He was acquitted after the wife, a dressmaker and Robert Colfax’s lover, testified that she had somehow shot herself in the back.
“Perhaps not France anymore. I love France. France gave me birth, but I am America now, Monsieur Sheriff. I raise the flag! I raise the flag high over my head and over all your heads, Monsieur Sheriff!”
“Good for you, Broussard. Good for all of us.” A man from Culpeper had agreed to come down and defend him. Skiffington found a piece of paper for the petition, and in another drawer he found the list of questions that needed to be answered on the blank paper before someone in Richmond would say the judge could come. Each question had to be written down on the petition paper, followed by the answer. And each question from the list had to be written down even if there was no answer to it. Nature of the Alleged Crime.
“I am thinking that I will stay forever to live here, stay in this place and be happy.” Broussard had been a citizen of the United States for three years. He had not seen France and his family since he left them eight years ago. He still planned to bring his family to America. Only his two oldest children even remembered what Broussard looked like. “Stay and pursue the happiness, heh, as be always the right of you and me.” Broussard’s wife had taken a lover two years after he left. The wife and every last one of Broussard’s children were in love with the lover. It was a love from which Broussard would not have been able to retrieve them. “I sing America. I sing America happiness.”
“Yes,” Skiffington said, opening the ink jar, “pursue it to your heart’s content.” Name of Alleged Victim or Victims.
“I will bring my wife here and we will be strong like you and the Mrs. Skiffington. I will be Mr. Broussard and we will be Mr. and Mrs. Broussard. Have a house bigger than yours, Monsieur Sheriff. Do you have a big house, Monsieur Sheriff?” Broussard and his partner, Alm Jorgensen, had come to Manchester with two slaves to sell-Moses, the man who would become Henry Townsend’s overseer, and a woman named Bessie. They had heard that Robert Colfax was looking for new slaves, but Colfax was not satisfied with how Broussard and Jorgensen had come about the slaves. “We got the people in Alexandria, goddamn the world,” Jorgensen kept telling Colfax. He also told Colfax he was Finnish. But they had no bills of sale for Moses and Bessie, and because Broussard and Jorgensen were strangers, and foreigners to boot, Colfax sent them away.
“My house is big enough for me and my family is about all I can put in it. I told you you could call me John,” Skiffington said.
“Yes yes. John, like me is a John, heh?” Broussard had planned to use his share of the money from the sale of Moses and Bessie to bring his wife and children over. After an evening of drinking, he and Jorgensen had fought on the porch of the boardinghouse where they were staying and the Swede had ended up dead.
The jail door opened and William Robbins walked in, followed by Henry Townsend, who was then twenty years old. Henry was a little more than a year from buying Moses, nearly three years from marrying Caldonia. More than half of his time was spent at Robbins’s plantation, in a cabin separate from the slave quarters. He was a free man, a bootmaker and shoemaker, coming and going as he pleased, as long as he took his free papers with him.
“John,” Robbins said. He reached across the desk and shook Skiffington’s hand. The handshake was complete before Skiffington had fully risen.
“Good day,” Broussard said, though he didn’t know Robbins.
“John, we had a little nasty business with Henry here. Harvey Travis gave him bad treatment not two nights ago when he was leaving my place. He hit Henry once and might have done more if Barnum Kinsey hadn’t stepped in to take Henry’s side. Bad business. John, very bad business. Henry was only headin to his folks.”
Henry had not moved from the door.
“Good day, Monsieur Bill.” Broussard was at the bars, as he had been since Skiffington entered.
Robbins turned around. “It was Travis, right?” he asked Henry. “Yessir.” “Travis,” Robbins said to Skiffington.
“I just saw him Saturday, Bill. Saw Harvey on Saturday.”
“About this here business?”
“No, another matter,” Skiffington said. “I’ll see him again this evening before the patrol. I’ll speak to him.” He knew of Henry, the boot and shoe Negro, had spoken a few times to him over the years. Skiffington and Winifred and Minerva would be at Henry’s funeral. As he looked at Henry standing at the door, Skiffington recalled that he was the son of the furniture maker Augustus and the woman Mildred who, at the far end of the county, might as well be at the end of the world.
Broussard and Jorgensen had gotten the name of William Robbins from Colfax, and it was slowly occurring to Broussard that this was the man Colfax had said might be interested in purchasing Moses and Bessie. “Monsieur. Monsieur Bill, please a moment. Three moment.”
“What?” Robbins said.
“Please, we have slaves for you. Two good humans for you.”
“I didn’t come here for no damn slaves,” Robbins said to Broussard. He had heard about the Frenchman who had killed his own partner.
“Please. Please. I want to bring my wife and babies here and be America.”
Skiffington and Robbins looked at each other and then Skiffington shrugged. Robbins looked for one second at Henry then said to Broussard, “Where is this property?”
“Sawyer has em back of his place, and what little money Broussard had for their upkeep is running out,” Skiffington said. “He gets to live here free but I don’t know what will become of them when the money runs out.”
Robbins turned to Henry. “Go tell Mr. Sawyer to bring the property here, and tell him I want to get home before dinner.”
“Yessir,” Henry said and left.
“Good humans. The finer of the slaves,” Broussard said.
“Plain ‘finer’ ain’t good enough,” Robbins said and turned from Skiffington and Broussard and looked out the window that faced the street. “Only the finest will get me out of the bed in the morning.”
“Then finest it will be, Monsieur Bill.”
Sawyer walked in the door first. He was a fat man and he was out of breath. Then came Moses who turned to help Bessie because there was something wrong with her foot. She was limping and winced with each step. They were without chains, him and her, but Sawyer was holding a pistol. Then came Henry who stayed at the door after everyone had walked into the room.
“See, see, Monsieur Bill. Finest humans.”
Moses and Bessie looked at Broussard, then at Skiffington and finally over to Robbins, who had watched them come down the street. He already knew the woman would not do. The injury may not have been permanent, but he saw a kind of unsettling tilt to her walk, as if God had leaned her body just a bit to the side when he made her and bid her walk leaning just to the left for the rest of her life. And he could see that she had been crying and it had nothing to do with the foot. That, the crying, was also a permanent condition, he had decided.
Robbins stepped to Moses. “Take them things off,” he said to Moses about the rags he was wearing. “Sir. Master Sir, this woman, her and me is together,” Moses said. “Do what I said,” Robbins said. In a moment Moses was naked. Robbins walked around him and after squeezing both his arms and legs and looking into his mouth, he said to Broussard, “How much?”
“Eight hundred dollars, Monsieur Bill.”
Robbins said, “When I ask you a plain and simple question, I expect no less than a plain and simple answer.” Henry shifted from one foot to the other. Broussard held tight to the bars.
Sawyer was still trying to catch his breath. He took out a rag and leaned against the wall. Skiffington had the only chair at his desk. He had been standing beside the desk, but now he took two steps and was in the chair. Sawyer wiped his face and the back of his neck. Skiffington picked up the list of questions. Now he would have to start all over again. Nature of the Alleged Crime. Are there witnesses to the alleged crime? Can such witnesses be believed?
“But, Monsieur Bill, they are finer human beings. Please, please, my beautiful wife is waiting.”
“Sir, I have never known your wife, beautiful or otherwise, and she has never known me.”
“Yes. Yes. Then seven hundred dollars, Monsieur Bill. And five hundred for the woman. Good prices. They come from Alexandria. You have heard of Alexandria. Alexandria, Virginia, has known for the humans it sells. Go to the Alexandria for the best humans to sell, people told me. Alexandria. Ancient like the Egypt.”
Skiffington wrote. Name of Alleged Victim or Victims. Name of Alleged Criminal or Criminals.
Robbins said to Bessie about her rags, “Take them things out.” Henry moved a half step back until the doorknob was in his back. “Please, Master Sir,” Moses said, “we together, her and me. Don’t pull us apart. We together.” It was true that he and Bessie had come from Alexandria, where they first met in a holding pen. And now, after two months, he could not stand the thought of being away from her. “Please, master sir, she and me be family.” Robbins ignored him. Bessie began crying again, and she went on crying as she disrobed. Robbins touched her the same as he had touched Moses. “Please…” Moses said. “If you say one more word to me,” Robbins said to Moses, “I will buy you just to take you out in the street and shoot you. Just one more word.”
Skiffington looked up from his papers. I arrest you for the murder of this nigger right in front of my eyes.
Robbins went to the bars and said to Broussard, “I will give you five hundred and twenty-five for the man and not a penny more. If you say anything but ‘Yes,’ I will leave.”
“Yes, Monsieur Bill. Yes.” Broussard took his hands from the bars and put them at his sides. “Yes, Monsieur.”
“What am I gonna do with the woman, Bill?” Sawyer said.
“I don’t know, Reese. I really don’t know.”
Where did the alleged crime occur? That was the easiest question of them all, and he wrote, “Manchester County, Virginia.” Date of the Alleged Crime. He had forgotten the exact day of the murder and would have to ask Broussard. He knew that way down on the list was a question about witnesses. He would have to ask Broussard about that as well.
“We together, Massa,” Moses said to Skiffington. “Me and Bessie together. She all I have in this world. We is one as a family.”
“I know that,” Skiffington said, trying to write. “Don’t you think I know that?” It occurred to him that a white woman might pass the window and have her sensibilities offended by seeing a naked slave man and he stood and went to the window, as a kind of distraction for any woman passing.
“Please, now, we is one, her and me. We is one.”
Skiffington saw Mrs. Otis strolling on the other side of the street. She stopped to pass the time of day with Mrs. Taylor, who was obviously in the family way. Mrs. Otis had the hand of her youngest child, a boy who had not developed as swiftly as her other children. Mrs. Taylor laughed at something Mrs. Otis said and put her gloved hand briefly to her mouth. She held her unfurled parasol down and to her side. The Otis boy was fascinated by it. Skiffington liked the Otis boy and thought that all he needed was a few years and he would be no different from any other boy his age. “Give him time,” he said more than once to Mr. Otis. He would not say that to Mrs. Otis because she did not believe there was anything wrong with her boy. The boy reached for the parasol and Mrs. Taylor, knowing what he could do if he got hold of it, raised it up and out of his way. While Skiffington was hopeful about the boy’s progress, he was not blind. There had to be a problem with a boy sucking three fingers at a time at twelve years old and afraid to leave his mother’s side because the demons would eat his private parts. It was that boy, along with his older brother and a slave boy named Teacher, who would burst into flames in front of the dry goods store. The younger white boy first going into flames, then followed by his brother. The slave Teacher would go five minutes after that, just as a man with a bucket of water came running up the street.
Moses said once more that they were together and Sawyer told him to be quiet because he was hurting his ears. “I got only her, Massa. We family.”
In moments they were all gone from the jail except Skiffington and his prisoner, who stayed quiet long enough for Skiffington to complete the petition. Then he signed his name and gave his title and ended by putting down the date.
“I will reward you for your assistance, Monsieur Sheriff,” Broussard said after a time. He was on his cot and quite pleased with how things had gone, even though he had Bessie yet to sell.
“I want nothing, Broussard. They pay me for what I do here.”
Broussard jumped up and came to the bars. “But no. No. I want to show how I appreciate.” He pointed to the left wall where Skiffington had hung a map, a browned and yellowed woodcut of some eight feet by six feet. The map had been created by a German, Hans Waldseemuller, who lived in France three centuries before, according to a legend in the bottom right-hand corner. “I live where they make that beautiful map. I know who make them, Monsieur Sheriff, and I can get you better, bigger map. I can do it to show how I appreciate.”
“That one will do fine,” Skiffington said. A Russian who claimed to be a descendant of Waldseemuller had passed through the town and Skiffington had bought the map from him. He wanted it as a present for Winifred but she thought it too hideous to be in her house. Heading the legend were the words “The Known World.” Skiffington suspected the Russian, a man with a white beard down to his stomach, was a Jew but he could not tell a Jew from any other white man.
“I get you better,” Broussard said. “I get you better map, and more map of today. Map of today, how the world out together today, not yesterday, not long ago.” The Russian had told Skiffington that it was the first time the word America had ever been put on a map. The land of North America on the map was smaller than it was in actuality, and where Florida should have been, there was nothing. South America seemed the right size, but it alone of the two continents was called “America.” North America went nameless.
“I’m happy with what I got,” Skiffington said. The map had come from the Russian in twelve parts, each weighing about three pounds, and Skiffington had had a time putting it together. He did it while Winifred and Minerva were away at Clara’s, and when Winifred returned and told him she did not want it in her house, he had to dismantle it and reassemble it again in the jail.
“You see, Monsieur Sheriff,” Broussard said. “I get you better. I get you more better map.”
Jean Broussard was convicted of murder in the first degree and taken to Richmond and hanged. The ne’er-do-well brother-in-law of the prison warden managed to find in Richmond a Roman Catholic priest-a man who was at a time in his life when all the people in his dreams spoke Latin-and that priest, seeking to escape those dreams, stayed night and day with Broussard until the end. The $525 Broussard would have received for the sale of Moses was conveyed by Skiffington to Richmond, who conveyed it to Washington, D.C., who conveyed it to the French embassy. And in five months the money, now in francs, reached Broussard’s widow. Mrs. Broussard never had a fixed idea of America, was never able to comprehend that America was a place of separate states and yet one country at the same time. And with that notion in her head, she was never to understand that the money came from the government of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She, along with her children and her lover, would always believe the money came from the government of the United States of America, and that it was payment for what the government had done to her husband, an American citizen.
The $385 for Bessie, who was sold two weeks after Moses to a blind man and his pious wife in Roanoke, went the same route from the county of Manchester, but somewhere between the county and the ship carrying mail along with discouraged and homesick immigrants returning to Europe, the $385 was lost, or simply taken. Someone enjoyed the money, but it was not the widow Broussard and her children and her lover in Saint-Etienne.
Perhaps it was just as well that Jean Broussard came to the end that he did in America. His family would never have separated from the lover; he would have had to come with them, or they would not have come at all. No, it was over for him in France. Someone had even accidentally broken Broussard’s favorite mug. His family could have done worse than the man his wife took up with. The lover was, in his fashion, quite a religious man. And he was handy with a knife. He could carve out a man’s heart in the time it took for that human machine to go from one beat to another; and with that same knife the lover was able to peel an apple, without sacrificing any of the apple meat, and present it fresh and whole to a waiting child.
If Alm Jorgensen the murdered man had any heirs, no one knew about them.
The records of the Jean Broussard trial, along with most of the judicial records of nineteenth-century Manchester County, were destroyed in a 1912 fire that killed ten people, including the Negro caretaker of the building where the records were kept, and five dogs and two horses. The Broussard trial took one day; actually, part of a day-the trial itself all that morning and the jury deliberations a portion of the summer afternoon. One of the jurors was a man who had studied the law at the College of William and Mary, where his father and grandfather had gone. When that man, Arthur Brindle, returned from the college to Manchester and began practicing, he found that the law was making him a poor man. So he went into dry goods and he made a good living. He suffered from sleepless nights most of his life, this merchant/lawyer did. He and his wife discovered that if he talked to her about his day before he tried going to sleep, he could manage to pull at least two hours of sleep from the night, which was better than the half hour he usually got when they did not talk. And so the night of the day he and the eleven other men convicted Jean Broussard, he lay beside his wife and told her about it. On the stand, Broussard, the merchant said, kept repeating that he was a proud and upstanding American citizen and that he would never hurt another proud and upstanding American citizen if he could help it. It was not this so much, this repetition of who he was, that hurt his case, the merchant said, yawning and listening to the quiet hum that was his ten children sleeping all about the house. It was not that the defense attorney from Culpeper kept telling the jurors Broussard’s Scandinavian partner was not an actual American citizen, though that did not help his case either. It was the accent. The accent gave him “the stench of a dissembler.” Everything Broussard said came out warped because of the accent, even when he spoke his own name. The jurors, the merchant told his wife, would have been able to accept why the partner was killed if Broussard had sat on the stand and told his whole story without an accent.