6 A Frozen Cow and a Frozen Dog. A Cabin in the Sky. The Taste of Freedom.
On Sunday, the second day Henry Townsend had been in the ground, Maude Newman, his mother-in-law, came into her daughter’s bedroom at the house Henry and Moses had built and sat on the side of Caldonia’s bed, took her daughter’s hand in one of hers, sighing all the while. “My poor widow child,” Maude sighed. Only moments before, Loretta, Caldonia’s maid, had asked her mistress if she wanted her to bring up something for Caldonia to eat or drink. Caldonia told Loretta that her mind was not on food or drink; it was all she could do, she said to the woman who had been with her most of her married life, to open her eyes and to breathe. Loretta said, “Yes, ma’am,” knowing how true that must have been, and stepped back to watch Caldonia take her time to raise herself up in bed. Loretta had known of one woman’s slave who was required to do virtually everything for her mistress, even to wipe the mistress’s hind parts after every bowel movement. Caldonia had always been strong, choosing to do so much on her own, and Loretta had, over time, become more of a companion. “For all thas in her, she coulda been a slave,” Loretta had funned once to Celeste, Elias’s wife, knowing Celeste could keep secrets.
Once Caldonia was up in the bed and leaning back on the pillows, she stared at Loretta as if to ask what next did the world expect of her. Caldonia looked over at the open chiffarobe, whose door was broken and so would never close properly, looked at the black dress hanging there. It seemed to have its own life, so much life that it could have come down and walked over and placed itself over her body. Fastened itself. Her mother had worn the dress for only a month after Caldonia’s father had died. “I cannot do any more time with this dress,” Maude had said when she put it away. “Wearing black makes my skin itch. Mr. Newman was a man after God’s own heart but why should I suffer now that he is sitting with our Lord?” And Maude’s mourning had come to an end.
“My poor widow child,” Maude said again.
“Mama, please. Please don’t give me this today. Tomorrow. The day after tomorrow, but not today.”
“The legacy is your future, Caldonia, and that can’t wait. I wish it could, but no. All else can, but not the legacy.” For Maude, the legacy meant slaves and land, the foundation of wealth. Her fear was that Caldonia, in her grief, would consider selling the slaves, along with the land, as if to accomplish some wish Henry, tied to the want and need of a material world, had been too afraid to try to fulfill in life. “I don’t want you to be like your father, mired in so much grief he didn’t know right from wrong.”
“I learned from Henry not to let something like grief turn me from right to wrong, Mama.” With those words she could see him, in her mother’s garden saturated with the smell of honeysuckle, still wearing clothes too heavy for the season, talking about how he would be a master different from any other, the kind of shepherd master God had intended. He had been vague, talking of good food for his slaves, no whippings, short and happy days in the fields. A master looking down on them all like God on his throne looked down on him. He was a young shoemaker, a bootmaker, who more than a year before had completed the generous deal for Moses with William Robbins. But the words did not matter to Caldonia; she was young, unhappy with the courtship prospects all about her, and so even had he talked all afternoon of planting and harvesting tobacco, it would have been a serenade. This was more than a year after Augustus had broken his shoulder with the walking stick of an acorn and squirrels.
Caldonia considered her mother. Henry had been a good master, his widow decided, as good as they come. Yes, he sometimes had to ration the food he gave them. But that was not his fault-had God sent down more food, Henry would certainly have given it to them. Henry was only the middleman in that particular transaction. Yes, he had to have some slaves beaten, but those were the ones who would not do what was right and proper. Spare the rod…, the Bible warned. Her husband had done the best he could, and on Judgment Day his slaves would stand before God and testify to that fact.
“Henry taught me well,” Caldonia said to her mother.
Caldonia lay back down in the bed and closed her eyes. What would his slaves have said that very day about the kind of master Henry had been? Would they be as generous as they would be on Judgment Day when it was all over and they could afford to be generous? She opened her eyes and Maude was smiling at her. In Fern Elston’s class one day when Caldonia was ten, Calvin, her brother, had punched another child on the arm and the boy cried. “I didn’t hit him all that hard, Mrs. Elston. I hit him with a soft lick, a baby lick. I didn’t hurt him.” Fern had come up to Calvin and slapped him and shook him by the shoulders until Calvin cried. “Why are you crying, Calvin? I just gave you a baby lick.” When both boys had stopped crying, Fern said gently to Calvin, “The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it would kill a man or make a baby just yawn.”
“I have no doubt that Henry taught you all you need to know,” Maude said and squeezed Caldonia’s hand. “But like your father, you have too much melancholy in your blood for your own good.” The death of his youngest child some thirteen years before had led Tilmon Newman to believe God wanted him to free his slaves, which numbered twelve at the time of the child’s death. God, Tilmon told Maude, had failed to get his meaning across with the deaths of Tilmon’s parents and his brothers-all of them in captivity-so he had started in on Tilmon’s children to bring the lesson closer to home. “Ain’t none a yall safe from God,” Tilmon said, days after he buried his child, who had been four years old. “Not even you, Maude. He will come through every mountain to get at you.”
Loretta now stepped back until her back was touching a bedroom wall. Then she edged herself so that she was all but enveloped by the shadow in the corner. She had to be near if Caldonia wanted her, but it would not do to have Maude think she was taking in every single word of the whatfors and whynots of their lives and making some strange sense of what was overheard. Some white mistresses did not care what their servants heard; they felt the servants had no more ability to hear and judge than the cups and saucers. And some, like Caldonia, saw some servants as confidants. But others, like Maude, felt God had pitted the world against them and no one could be more against them than property that could hear and speak and think. They would never make the mistake of believing a slave was no more than a cup or saucer. It seemed to Loretta that Maude rose each and every morning with the heat under her blood and a sword in both hands, and even her own children had to make known their loyalty to her all over again. Mistresses like that could be far more brutal on a slave, whether she owned the slave or not, and would do everything to separate a nosy slave from what little life she was used to. Years of serving with Caldonia might not mean anything to Maude. In a few moments, as the conversation continued, Loretta made her way unnoticed out into the hall.
“Mama, give me a little peace. My husband is not even cold. Just a little peace before you close me in with this. Moses is taking care of so much. And Calvin is here. I can mourn for just a bit more. Calvin is here.”
“Calvin, Calvin,” Maude said. “His blood has even more melancholy than yours. Leave it to him and your legacy will be out the door before morning.” Caldonia slid down even more in the bed, withdrawing her hand from her mother’s. “Don’t be some little girl, Caldonia.”
“I’m not being a little girl, Mama. I’m just being a poor widow child.”
“I won’t stand for any foolishness from you, Caldonia.” Loretta stood where Caldonia and Maude could not see her but where she could see anyone coming up the stairs. “I won’t go through this again.” Tilmon Newman, like Augustus Townsend, had worked to purchase his own freedom. His plan had been to buy the freedom of all in his family, some four people, including his parents. But in the early days of his freedom, the young man had met Maude and married and they had started to build a life for themselves, a little land here, one or two slaves there. A child. Maude kept reminding him what a kind man his parents’ master was and so his family’s bondage was not the burden it was for many other slaves. “You were there,” she said. “You know what kind of man Horace Green was. Your parents and your brothers will wait until we are good and set on our feet, until we have enough of everything so they can come into freedom and not want for anything.” But in less than three years they all perished before he could buy them away: his mother drowned, his father was killed in a fight with another slave, his oldest brother died of food poisoning from a pig stolen from a neighboring farm, and his youngest brother, sent by his master to find a lost cow in a snowstorm, was discovered four days later, boy and cow huddled and frozen together. The boy and the beast had to be thawed out before they could be buried separately.
Caldonia sat up in bed again. “Mother, Henry worked too hard to give me all of this. I would not squander it away, not in any way you could imagine. I know my duty to what he left me. However much I am Papa’s daughter, I am just as much your daughter.”
“You must remember that it is so easy to go down into destitution.” Her own family had been free for generations but they had never had enough to buy even one slave. “I would not want that for you. A destitution brought on by grief.” They looked at each other. “You should eat something, Caldonia.”
“My heart is not in food, Mama.”
“Put your heart into it, Caldonia. A little milk. A little bread. Try and put your heart into a little something.” Tilmon Newman had planned to find a way to get all his slaves to freedom, had been in touch with a white man from South Carolina who thought they could load them all up and drive up to freedom. “We must go before God with no more than what babies come into the world with,” Tilmon told Maude. But she had poisoned Tilmon before anything like that could happen. Arsenic pie. Arsenic coffee. Arsenic meat. The servants had thought she had gone mad wanting to do all the cooking for her husband. “He has done so much for me, so why shouldn’t I tend to my husband from time to time?” she said to them. The arsenic devoured Tilmon, ate all the meat and muscle off his bones. “For the life of me,” the white doctor said, “I can’t find what’s ailing him.” Years later, Maude still had some arsenic left, kept it in a bottle in a corner beside her chest of drawers. The servants who cleaned that room thought it some remedy for Maude’s frequent headaches. The house servants had never gone into the bottle when they had headaches for they all believed that what worked for Maude would never in a month of Sundays work for a slave.
“Some preserves on a piece of bread, then,” Caldonia said.
Loretta was standing at the bed. “Some milk?” she said.
“Plain water. Cold, plain water, Loretta. Please.”
Maude stood up. “And once she’s eaten, Loretta, help her get dressed.”
“I always dress myself, Mama.”
“You needn’t go on with the old ways, Caldonia.”
“They will do for now.”
Loretta and Maude left together. Downstairs, Loretta went to the kitchen and Maude went out onto the verandah where she knew she would find Calvin.
“I hope you haven’t been at her so early in the morning, Mama,” Calvin said. He was leaning against a post and his arms were crossed. He had brought the white man from South Carolina to his father. “With all that legacy rigmarole. She shouldn’t have to hear that so soon after burying Henry.”
“Calvin, with each day of your life, you pull me deeper into misery,” Maude said and stood at the other post. She realized after Tilmon was dead that her husband had known the South Carolina white man, the abolitionist, only because of her son. Within months of where they were that day, Maude would become terribly ill and would stay that way for years. Calvin would stay by her side, a kind of nurse to a mother who really didn’t like him anymore. “For the life of me,” the white doctor said to Calvin in the third year of his mother’s illness, “I can’t find what’s ailing her.”
“I’m sorry for that, Mama,” Calvin now said to Maude. “For all the misery.” It was getting harder and harder for him to think of a reason to remain in Virginia. He had, as he dug Henry’s grave, thought that he would speak to Caldonia about freeing her slaves but he knew now that her mind was not going that way. And, too, his mother was formidable.
Maude came to him. “It’s not your fault, Calvin. We are what God puts in us.” She touched his arm and he looked at her briefly. “I do not want you to talk to Caldonia about selling her legacy. Telling her that she can be happy somewhere over yonder without all of it.” He put a hand over hers, the one that was on his arm. “Don’t try to put your dreams in her head.”
“That was far from my mind, Mama.”
Maude went back inside, then she returned in moments. “I want you to know that I have a legacy for you, whether you want it or not.”
“I really don’t.” He waited for her to remind him that he lived in her house, which was run by slaves. Ate the food they prepared. Slept in a bed they made. Wore clothes they cleaned.
“Still. I have it, Calvin. With Caldonia on her own, I have no one but you to give it to. Everyone else is dead. I will leave it all to you. They may not allow me to take the legacy into heaven, so I will just leave it to you.” She went back into the house.
Later that morning, the slaves of the field went back to their labors. Only those under five years were exempt, cared for in Caldonia’s kitchen by seven-year-old Delores. Some weeks, Tessie, Celeste and Elias’s six-year-old, cared for the small children. Though it was Sunday, a day Henry always gave them to rest up from the other six, Moses the overseer decided on his own to put them back to work. Valtims Moffett came very early to preach to them and was surprised to see them in the field. He simply shouted out a few words to them as they labored and left without seeking payment. When Calvin-less than two hours after the slaves, including Celeste, four months pregnant, went to the fields-learned what Moses had done, he spoke with Caldonia and she said she wanted no work that day. Calvin went out and told everyone to come out of the fields and go back to their cabins. “Caldonia doesn’t want you doing anything more on your own,” Calvin told Moses. Moses disturbed him in a way he had never been able to understand and it pleased him to pull Moses down a peg. “Don’t do anything without coming to her first. Or me.” “Yessir, Mr. Calvin,” Moses said. “I understand that now.”
Calvin stood at the beginning of the lane and watched the slaves return in twos and threes, the children skipping ahead. He had worked hard to get to know all their names, as he knew the names of all the slaves at places he visited often. He called to people as they came his way, and most of them called or nodded or called him Mister Calvin. The children were always shy around him and he wondered, again, what they might have been told about him and people like him.
“Now you tell Mistress not to worry,” Stamford, the man who lived for young stuff, the man Gloria had turned away, was telling Calvin. “You tell Mistress Stamford said not to worry.”
“No, don’t let her worry, Massa,” said Priscilla, Moses’s wife. “It wouldn’t do to have her worry her po self to death.” The other slaves moved around the three; they knew how Stamford and Priscilla could be.
“You tell Mistress,” Stamford said, “that Massa Henry went straight to heaven. He got to them gates and the Lord just opened em right up, said, ‘Massa Henry, I been waitin so long for you. Just come right in. I got a special place for you, Massa Henry, right here sida me.’ You tell Mistress that Stamford say that, Massa Calvin.”
“I’ll tell her,” Calvin said, trying to remember if Caldonia knew all their names. Once, at twenty, he had gone to spend a week or so with a friend near Fredericksburg and they had met a man, a slave of a white man, on his way home as the evening came on. The slave knew Calvin’s friend, a freed man whose family had had a slave but sold him because they could not afford to keep him. Calvin and his friend were drunk.
Alice came up and stuck her head between Priscilla and Stamford and chanted to Calvin, “Massa be dead. Massa be dead. Massa be dyin in the grave.”
“How are you, Alice?” Calvin said. There had been something about the way the slave on the Fredericksburg road had so very readily taken off his hat for Calvin’s friend and then for Calvin. “Hi you this evenin, Mister Ted?” the man had said to Calvin’s friend before putting the hat back on. Calvin, as the friend and the man talked about nothing as the bats took off for the evening, had finally reached around and knocked the man’s hat off his head. He did not know what had gotten into him. The drinking, he told himself later. He had always become meaner when he drank. He never saw the slave again, and the best Calvin could offer as an apology was to never drink again.
“Oh, gon way from here now, you. Take that mess on way from here,” Priscilla said to Alice, who drifted back and began hopping away. “When that moon come?” she chanted. “When that moon come? The sun wanna know when that moon come.”
Calvin went back to the house. It was far from twelve o’clock and he thought that there was a good bit of Sunday left for all of them to enjoy. The man on the Fredericksburg road had been stunned, as had Calvin’s friend. “Just go on and hit me for doing that to you,” Calvin had said, his hands hard at his sides. “Hit me. Hit me with a good lick for doing that to you.” He knew the man would never have done that and he hated himself for knowing why the man couldn’t. If the man had hit him a good one, Calvin would not have responded, would have just let him beat him to the ground.
Calvin turned around from the walk to the house and looked at the slaves disperse among the cabins and thought aloud so that anyone within feet of him could have heard, “Our Henry is dead.” He wished that Louis was with him, though he knew nothing would have been said or done. There was no solution for caring about the man with the traveling eye. Maybe New York could help take away the love, along with everything else. He got to the steps of the house and stopped, counted each step for the first time. The feelings for Louis had been there for some time, but it was two months ago that he knew it was all hopeless and that to save himself he had best take himself someplace else.
They had gone swimming at a creek, the way they had so often as children after lessons at Fern Elston’s. They had tired before long and come out of the water, Louis following Calvin, and they lay down on the bank, not five inches between them. Louis was talking about some woman he was interested in, describing what all had first caught his eye. That had long been his way with Calvin, to tell of this and that he had an eye for. They were stretched out, and Calvin, on his side, was looking at Louis, who was sitting up slightly on his elbows. Calvin had noticed a tiny pool of water and sweat that had collected in a small depression at the base of Louis’s neck. The pool of water stayed there for the longest, through all the talk about the woman, with slight vibrations on the surface of the water as his friend’s words came up and out his mouth. Long before Louis was done, Calvin had wanted to lean over and drink with his tongue from the pool. He would have, just then with the final word, but Louis turned his head slightly and all the water flowed down his chest. Calvin stood up and said he wanted to go home. One day, he said to himself, I will call New York my home and all of this will be a long ways away. Even after the many years as Maude’s nurse, he would never see New York.
Calvin went up the stairs of Caldonia’s house and lingered on the verandah, standing at the post on the right. If he had reached over to drink, he knew Louis would have tried to kill him right there. “New-York,” as he wrote it in a letter to a friend, would help. He knew no one there, not a soul, unless the frozen dog counted. In his possessions he had one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City-a white family sitting all along their porch. They seemed to live on a farm in that city and on either side of their house Calvin could see trees and empty space rolling off and down into what appeared to be a valley, at least on the left side of the photograph. A few of the faces blurred where the people had moved just as the picture had been taken. In the front yard, alone, was a dog looking off to the right. The dog was standing, its tail sticking straight out, as if ready to go at the first word from someone on the porch. There was nothing blurry about the dog. From the first second Calvin had seen the photograph he had been intrigued by what had caught the dog’s attention and frozen him forever. He had a very tiny hope that when he got to New York he might be able to find the house and those people and that dog and learn what had transfixed him. There was a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured. Whatever it was might be powerful enough, wonderful enough, to wait until Calvin could arrive and see it and know it for himself.
That Sunday Stamford left off from Priscilla and went to Cassandra, Delphie’s daughter, to beg her once again to be his woman. Now that Gloria was cold on him, Stamford knew he needed some other young stuff to replace her. Winter would be there before he knew it. The man who told him at twelve that young stuff would help him survive slavery had had the ugliest mouth of teeth. But he seemed to have all the young stuff he could handle. “Young stuff,” the man said once, “will drive you crazy if you let it. Tame that young stuff so it don’t drive you crazy.”
Stamford tapped at Cassandra’s cabin door. “Cassandra, you in there?” A few months before he had opened it after knocking for some five minutes and Cassandra had come up to him and punched him in the face. He had tried to be patient since then but patience was not something he had ever picked up. “Cassandra, honey, you in there? It’s me, Stamford.” The cabin door opened and Cassandra was standing with both hands on her hips. Celeste looked down the lane at him from her door and shook her head. The story of his chasing Cassandra had gone from comical to sad and was now back to comical.
“I’m done hearin you, man? Leave off me now. I’m done hearin what you gotta say.”
“Oh, sugar, now you know me. It’s Stamford. It’s your sweet Stamford.”
She stepped back into the room and came back with a piece of wood. “If you don’t leave off me, I’m gonna knock you upside the head. I mean it, Stamford.”
“But, sugar, it’s me, your sweet Stamford. You don’t mean that.”
She tapped him twice on the top of the head and the dust and dirt on the wood flew about and then settled on his head. “There your sugar,” she said. “There all the sugar you gon get from me. Now take it and go on.” She tapped him twice again and he stepped quickly back, just in time to avoid more dust and dirt settling on him. “That ain’t a nice thing to do to your man, sugar.”
He was back the next evening after Moses had released them all from the fields. He came later than usual, having waited until all was clear before he stole flowers from Caldonia’s garden. “Sugar, I got somethin for you, sugar.” He could hear Cassandra and Alice and Delphie in the cabin. He heard Cassandra tell one of the other women to go see what he want, and Alice flung open the door. Her eyes widened at the sight of the flowers, a few red roses and a couple of not very lively begonias. Alice began dancing about. “What is it, Alice? What he doin to you?” Cassandra said. She came to the door in time to see Alice support herself on the doorjamb, lean down and bite into the roses. She chewed and swallowed and went back for more as Stamford moved away.
“You girl, what you go and do that for? Lord have mercy?” he said. “Lord forgive her.”
“Serve you right,” Cassandra said. “Stealin and then wantin me to be in the stealin with you. Come on in here, Alice,” and she closed the door.
What was left of the flowers was at the door at two in the morning when Alice came back from wandering. She brought them in and laid the little bundle beside the sleeping Cassandra on her pallet.
He might have come back again the next night but he had awakened the night he stole the flowers from a dream he could not remember. The dream went to pieces as soon as he sat up on his pallet, but what came into his head was the thought of his mother and father. He had not seen them in more than thirty-five years. He called out to them there in the dark and received no answer. He was forty years old. He sat on his pallet and began to think that he would never again have young stuff, that he would shrivel up and die alone in slavery. There in the dark he realized that he did not even remember his parents’ names. Did they have names? he asked himself as the cabin rose and fell with the snoring of the two other men. Did they have names? They must have, he told himself. All God’s children have names. God wouldn’t allow it to be otherwise. If his parents did not have names, then maybe they had not existed, and so could not have created him. Maybe he had not even been born, but just appeared one day as a little boy and someone, seeing him alone and naked in some lane, had taken pity on him and given him a home. No mama, no papa, give that po boy a home.
Stamford lay back down and tried to find a comfortable spot on the straw. He turned and turned and finally settled for something on his side. It worried him that he could not remember their names. Maybe if he had thought of them more throughout his life. He closed his eyes and took his parents in his hands and put them all about the plantation where he had last seen them, his mother in his left hand and his father in his right hand. But that did not feel right and so he put his father in his left hand and his mother in his right hand, and that felt better. He set them outside the smokehouse, which had a hole in the roof in the back. “Hants come down that hole and take you to the devil,” an older boy had once told him. Stamford was five and it had not been long since his parents had been sold away. “Say Jesus name three times and the hants gon leave you lone.” “Jesus Jesus Jesus.” “You gotta say it faster than that for the hants to leave you lone.” “JesusJesusJesus.” “That sound jus bout right.”
Stamford set his mother and father down before the cabin they had shared with another woman, and still the names did not come. He left off for a moment to touch his navel and that told him that he had once been somebody’s baby boy, been a part of a real live woman who had been with a real man. He had the navel and that was proof he had once belonged to a mother. In his mind, Stamford took up his parents again and put them in front of the master’s big house, he put them in front of the master and the mistress, he put them in front of the master’s children, big and redheaded and loud as three angry bulls. He put them in the fields, he put them in the sky, and at last he put them before the cemetery where there were no names. And that was it: his mother’s name was June, and so he opened his right hand and let her go. His father’s name did not come to him, try as he might to put him all about the plantation. Maybe God had slipped just that one time. Stamford slept, and just before dawn he awoke and said into the darkness, “Colter.”
He went into a kind of mourning for his parents and did not go back to Cassandra. But he was afraid of death and so, after four days, he got it into his head that Gloria might take him back even though she said she did not want to have anything to do with him. He watched her go about her days, and on Thursday evening, after the fields, he sidled up to her coming back from Celeste and Elias’s cabin and said, “Whatcha been doin, sugar?”
“Ain’t none a your damn business.”
“It be my business cause a what I feel for you.”
“Well, be feelin it somewhere else, cause I don’t want you feelin it here.”
He was trying to be patient so he let her be for two days. At dinnertime Stamford found Gloria in a far part of the field she was working in, and she was eating with Clement, the last slave Henry had purchased before he died. “Whatcha you doin gettin with Gloria for?” he asked Clement.
Gloria laughed and that gave Clement license to ignore the older man. The two went on eating, some biscuit, some molasses.
“I done ask you what you doin with Gloria? She ain’t with you.”
“Look that way to me,” Clement said.
“And look that way to me,” Gloria said.
Stamford leaned over and pushed Clement’s left shoulder. “You leave off now, Stamford, if you know whas good for you,” Clement said.
“All right there now, Stamford,” Gloria said, putting her food back in her pail.
“Leave me off, if you know what’s good for you,” Clement said. He shared the cabin with Stamford and they had always gotten along.
“Oh, I know whas good for me all right. Seem like the only person that don’t know it is you.” He pushed the shoulder again and Clement shoved the hand away. When he pushed again, Clement stood up.
“I’m gonna call Moses on you, Stamford,” Gloria said, also rising.
Stamford slapped Clement and Clement punched him in the face, first with one fist and then with the other. Gloria screamed and the other women near them began screaming, too. Stamford began falling with the second punch and all the screaming seemed to push him down more. Clement was upon him and began pummeling. “Leave me be is all I want,” Clement said. “Just leave me be. Leave me in peace. Leave leave leave.” Gloria ran to get Moses and Elias and the other men, and the women tried to pull Clement away from Stamford, who was now all blood and cuts and lying very still.
“Stamford,” Celeste shouted, “don’t you be dead! It wouldn’t be right,” and Tessie repeated what her mother had just said, word for word.
The women roused Stamford before the men arrived. Then four men carried Stamford back to his cabin and Moses, who was not one of the four, told everyone to get back to work. He did not want to carry the news to the house, to Caldonia: an overseer was supposed to handle all such little matters, as Henry had once told him. But when he got to the cabin and saw the condition Stamford was in, he knew he could not keep it from her. Celeste and Delphie followed him into the cabin and began tending to Stamford. “Lord, whas got into that old fool?” Delphie said. She was three years older than Stamford.
“Do what yall can to get him straight?” Moses told the women. “I be back.”
Stamford was blinking and when he wasn’t blinking, his eyes were focused on a spiderweb hanging in a corner of the ceiling. He wanted to tell the people touching him that the web was the hand of the hant, signaling that he was on his way. He opened his mouth and through the blood and loose teeth said to the web, “JesusJesus…”
Moses reached the house and saw a white man go up the stairs with a big book under his arm. At the back of the house Moses knocked and Bennett, the cook’s husband, opened the door. “Stamford done got hurt,” he told Bennett. “Somebody in here gotta know that.” “He hurt bad?” Bennett said. He had been friends with Stamford. “Maybe dead bad,” Moses said. Bennett said, “Dear Jesus. Lemme tell em up front.”
The white man at the front door was from the Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company, based in Hartford, Connecticut. His talking to Calvin at the door was what kept Bennett so long. Calvin eventually came back with Bennett and when Moses told him, Calvin went back and returned with Caldonia, followed by Maude, and Fern Elston. Calvin had told the Atlas man that his sister was not interested in insurance on her slaves. “He hurt bad, Mistress,” Moses said to Caldonia, “far as I can see.” Caldonia said for him to come with her and they all followed Caldonia back through the house, with Maude asking Moses twice if his shoes were clean and Caldonia telling her mother, “Leave him alone, Mama.” Henry, following William Robbins’s advice, had never taken out insurance on his slaves, and his widow, at least on that day, was now following her dead husband.
Maude and Fern stayed in the house and in no time Moses and Caldonia and Calvin were at Stamford’s cabin. His mistress went to him and knelt at his pallet. The man from Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance Company was out in the road in his buggy by then. The people in Hartford, Connecticut, had taught that a woman was more apt to buy insurance for her slaves than a man was.
“Stamford?” Caldonia said. “What all you got yourself into now?” She took the rag Celeste had and wiped the rest of the blood from the man’s face. “Celeste, get me some more of these, please.”
Loretta, who had healed many a soul on the plantation, came in with a box of clean rags she used as bandages and knelt beside Caldonia.
“What am I going to do with you?” Caldonia asked Stamford as she took rags from Loretta’s box. Stamford stopped blinking and was concentrating on the spiderweb and trying to raise an arm to warn all the people in the cabin. The hant be comin, the hant be comin, he thought he was telling them. His eyes and cheeks were swelling quickly; he didn’t relate that to the punches he had taken. He felt the swelling was from the power of the hant. The door to the cabin was open and with the wind coming in, the web moved furiously. Look at that hant, Stamford thought he was warning. You leave us be. We ain’t done nothin to you. JesusJesus…
After they had cleaned him up, he fell asleep. He woke at about three and Delphie was there with some soup Caldonia had Zeddie the cook bring down from the house. The door was closed as Delphie fed him and somehow in the time he was asleep the spiderweb had been blown away. His face was a swollen ball but Delphie managed to get soup into him. He ate and kept thinking how saying Jesus fast had worked. He had the cabin to himself that day and night, for Moses sent Clement and the other man elsewhere to sleep. Delphie slept on one of their pallets. Loretta came down three more times to check on him-at seven o’clock, at ten o’clock and at five o’clock the next morning. It was the ten o’clock tending to that told her he might yet live. The five o’clock settled things once and for all.
No policy from Atlas would have paid Caldonia for the week and a half Stamford was off from work. Policies for slaves injured during work would not be issued for a few more weeks. (As it happened in the field, she might have been able to get away with calling it a work-related injury, as long as the agent did not come and see Stamford for himself.) Those work-injury policies would come about because an agent in South Carolina would write to Hartford to tell them that many of his clients were asking about insuring slaves hurt while doing their jobs. Men and women were losing limbs, getting sick from any number of ailments directly related to their jobs, the agent said in his letter to Hartford, and his clients wanted some relief for that. At the time of Stamford’s beating, there was a policy, for a premium of 25 cents a month, that would have paid Caldonia if he had died. It would not have paid the price Henry paid for Stamford, $450, because Stamford was now much older. But the money would have gone a long way toward purchasing someone else, someone stronger and no doubt more able to stand up for himself.
The Atlas man had come the day of the beating because Maude had sent word to him that her newly widowed daughter needed all the help she could get. Maude had policies on all her slaves. Riding away that day, the Atlas man noted in his mind that next time he would have to insist on seeing the mistress of the house and not settle on an answer from a male relative who did not know the benefits of Atlas products. A negative response, the people in Hartford had taught, was only the groundwork for a positive one.
Stamford did not go after Gloria again, or Cassandra. Though the hant was gone from his cabin, he began to think that he was not long for the world, that no young stuff would ever love him again. He became most difficult and got into even more fights with men. He even cursed children when an adult was not around to shoo him away. The children in the lane started saying that he was a man who had sworn off all human food. Stamford now ate only nails, they said, rusty nails, and drank only muddy water, the muddier the better.
He met up with a slave from a neighboring plantation and that man gave him from time to time a brew that the man claimed was better than the whiskey white men drank. The basic ingredient of the brew was potatoes that had been fermenting for months. There were other things in it, mostly just what the man happened to find at hand-leaves, dead insects, chicken feet, newspapers, dirty rags, brackish water. It all went into the brew. And for a while a body after drinking it would fall into a nice state, a place the brew man liked to call heaven on earth. The effect was brief and if the drinker did not go to sleep right away, a headache would come on that was worse than a tree falling on his head, for it was only men who drank the stuff.
A little more than three weeks after Clement beat him, Stamford came walking down to the lane. He had drunk some of the brew the day before and his head was paining him. His vision was blurry. It was Sunday afternoon and it was raining. He didn’t remember where he had been, but he was heading now to Delphie’s cabin. The muddy lane was empty except for Stamford and one of the three cats on the place who didn’t mind being out in the rain.
He knocked on Delphie’s door and she opened it before there was a need for a second knock.
“I been puttin my mind to studyin on why you and me don’t get together,” Stamford said. His head, though in pain, was clearer than it had been that morning, but it wasn’t clear enough for him to know the entire difference between right and wrong.
Delphie said, “What?” She had helped him heal after the fight with Clement as best she could, and when she saw him take a turn toward something else, she had gone on about her business.
Stamford grinned. The road to young stuff takes you through the forest of wide grins, the man had advised when Stamford was twelve. But young stuff is worth it. Stamford grinned some more. “You and me. Us together. Me and you puttin up together and bein as one little family, is what I’m sayin.” If he couldn’t get young stuff, he would take what he could get. Winter would be there before he knew it.
Delphie stepped out of the cabin. She was not smiling because she was not very happy. Men like him never lived for very long. They died and were forgotten the week after the next. “I would not want that, Stamford. I would not want that at all.”
“Sure you do. You sure do. I’m tellin you I got what ails you, honey. Got that and more to spare.” In the wintertime, the man had advised the boy, you can wrap yourself up in all that young stuff, and then you don’t need to come out till springtime. Stay hibernatin like them bears. “Just gimme one chance to show you what I gots, honey. Just one chance.”
Delphie looked up and down the lane. The rain was gentle right then, not hard, and she could see that just by how the sparse patches of grass did not lean and fuss when the rain hit them. Her eyes came back to Stamford and she realized that she pitied him more than she had ever pitied any human being. More than even a child lying dead and motherless in the road. She remembered what he called out in his dreams in the days after Clement beat him.
Stamford reached up and touched her breast. Now the titty, the man had advised the boy, is the real talker on a woman, you see what I mean. You have to tell it what you want even when that damn young stuff’s mouth is saying something opposite a what you want. Talk to the titty first and the door will open just like that.
Delphie took his hand from her breast, firmly, and Stamford let it drop down to his side. His blood had soaked seven large rags. With his other hand Stamford wiped the rain from his face, but it was all for nothing because he was standing in the open and more rain quickly covered his face. Finally, he saw what she saw. The rain stopped for about ten seconds and, his mouth still locked in a grin, Stamford looked around to see what the new silence was all about. When he returned, she was waiting. “I would not ever be with you,” she said. The rain came back. Delphie stepped closer to him and for just that moment he was hopeful, forgetting her words and taking in the smell of her. Delphie put her hands to his shoulders, held on to them, taking the full measure of him. “You too heavy a man for me to carry, Stamford. I done carried heavy men and I know how they can break your back. I ain’t got but this one back and I don’t want it broke again, least not before it can see fifty years.” She stepped back, turned and went into her home. She was used to nursing people, trying to heal them, and so it was a long moment before she shut the door, and when she did shut it, it made no sound.
Stamford stepped fully out into the lane, into mud. The man, the adviser, was silent in his head. He walked absently away from where he was originally headed and trudged through the mud toward Caldonia’s house. As the rain came harder, he understood that he was actually walking away from his own cabin and he turned around and through the heavy rain tried to make out just which cabin was his own. He went down the lane. The mud pulled at him. He walked on and gradually became aware of his surroundings. He passed Celeste and Elias’s cabin. He stopped. It’s rainin, he thought. Damn if it ain’t rainin cats and dogs out here.
He stood there for a very long time, and the longer he stood, the more he sank. All the heart he had for living in the world began to leave him. He could feel the life running down his chest, his arms and legs, doing something for the ground that it had never been able to do for him. If God had asked him if he was ready right then, there would have been only one answer. “Just take me on home. Or spit me down to hell, I don’t care anymore. Just take me away from this.”
He stepped on, slowed down by the mud.
As he neared his cabin, another door opened and Delores, seven years old, came out of her place with a bucket in her hand. Once she hit the lane, with Stamford only three feet away, she slipped and fell into the mud.
“You gotdamn little fool,” Stamford said, helping the child up. “What you doin out here in all this mess?”
“Goin to get some blueberries,” Delores said. In one part of the world, way off to the right of the cabins, lightning came and went quickly before the man or the girl knew what had happened.
“What?” Stamford said. “Ain’t you got the sense God gave you, girl?” If he knew her name, he had long ago forgotten it.
“I do,” Delores said, “so you just leave me lone.” She and Tessie, Celeste and Elias’s oldest, were the only children in the lane who were not afraid of Stamford, did not care about his nails and muddy-water diet. “Just leave me be.”
Stamford handed her the bucket. “Where in God’s hell you goin in all this rain, girl?”
“I done told you: I’m huntin up blueberries,” she said. Neither the man nor the girl noticed Delores’s brother, four-year-old Patrick, standing in the doorway of their cabin. His sister had told him to stay inside with the door closed until she got back. “I’m goin to pick some blueberries,” Delores said. “Now just leave me lone so I can go.” She wiped the rain from her eyes and blinked up at Stamford.
“Blueberries?” He looked around at the cabins as if the blueberry patch was just a few steps away. “Where your mama?”
“Up at the house helpin out.”
“Where your daddy?” Stamford asked.
“Over to the barn helpin with that sick horse.”
“Lord, Lord,” he said. “Hand me that damn thing. Give that bucket here.”
“I need it for my blueberries. Me and my brother want blueberries.” She looked at her cabin and saw her brother. “Ain’t I told you to stay inside?” she hollered at Patrick, who hunched his shoulders, then stuck his tongue out at her, something his father had told him never to do. Patrick slammed the door shut.
“I’ll get the damn blueberries and you just go in the house,” Stamford said. The thunder and lightning were closer, and Stamford was now aware that there was more than rain about. He looked at the girl and the bucket. “I’ll get the damn things.” He knew he was going to die but he thought this little thing might provide him with a nothing stool way off in the corner of heaven that nobody cared about. That corner of heaven reserved for fools, people too stupid to come out of the rain. People got to that corner by heaven’s back door.
“You promise?” Delores said.
“If I said it, I damn sure meant it. Now get on in the house fore you catch your death.” The girl went inside.
Stamford emptied out what rain had collected in the bucket since the girl left her home. He walked toward where he knew the blueberries were, again the only person in the lane. He had heard of a poison plant one man had taken to get to the other side, but because Stamford had never thought he would want to die with all the young stuff on the earth, he had not taken note of what the plant was or where it could be found. A woman on one plantation in Amelia County had sharpened a stone and cut both her wrists. Bled out into the ground. He had heard that she was a real pretty woman so that must have been a waste of good stuff. Maybe she was a cripple like Celeste. Pretty was good. Cripple, not so good. The man, the adviser, was still silent in his head, and Stamford went beyond the lane out into a wide place not far from the useless woods where Moses went to be with himself. The thunder and lightning were now even closer, about two miles or so beyond where he believed the sweetest berries could be picked. Best hurry, he thought. Best get outa this weather. He wanted to die but he really didn’t want to catch a cold to do it.
The patch he found was priceless, a hunk of ground that was partly on the plantation of the white people next door. Stamford didn’t care. He climbed over the fence when he saw some he wanted. He worked steadily and was done in less than a half hour. He hefted the bucket. Yes, that would satisfy two babies’ bellies until supper. He walked away from the patch, came back on the Townsend plantation. Soon the useless woods was on his right, and the lane and the cabins more than half a mile away. He was on a nice piece of open ground that some women said had the prettiest baby’s breaths and morning glories. He had picked some when he was courting Gloria. Beautiful flowers in a man’s sweaty hands. But they got the job done. Yessiree bob. Maybe he could kill her before he died. That would learn her. Send her ass to hell so she could sit on one of the devil’s wobbly two-legged stools for the rest of eternity just so she could ponder what she done to him. Kill her and then sit on a rise himself and watch her suffer for the rest of eternity. Then he began to think that bad talk and children’s blueberries didn’t go together. The rain continued and the thunder and lightning came nearer.
He didn’t pay much attention to the first crack of thunder, but the second one pulled his head around. He was in time to see the nearest tree in the woods shudder, stop, then shudder again. An oak tree. Moments later, he could see the first crow flying as if upside down, heading toward the ground, two or three feathers fluttering after the body. The second crow flying upside down told him it wasn’t flying but death that had hold of them both. It took less time for him to blink the rain out of his eyes before the second crow joined the first on the ground, followed by more feathers. If they made a sound as they fell, the rain was too loud for him to hear it.
The top third of the oak tree was now a glorious blaze of yellow light, as though a million candles had been placed in it. The lightning had struck the birds and Stamford could see that it was now blazing up there at the top of the tree, hungry for some more. It occurred to him that the tree was very tall, and that if a man managed to climb up to the top, he could jump and die real good. Very slowly, as he watched, the lightning of the million candles came together to form one six-foot pulsating line of blue fire that he could see through the leaves and the branches. The lightning began to ease itself down the tree, staying close to the trunk as it burned everything in its way, leaves and limbs and branches and anything that might have made a home in the tree. Finally, the lightning stood at the base of the tree, still blue, still pulsating, still six feet.
Stamford set the bucket down and went toward the lightning, toward his death.
Before he had gone very far, he turned and looked at the bucket of blueberries, which was tilting because he had unknowingly put it on a small clump of dirt. If someone was to find it and know who should have it, then the bucket should sit up straight and be closer to the quarters, to the children. He went back and moved the bucket some ten feet closer to the quarters. The rain never let up.
The lightning had not moved, and as Stamford ran toward it, the lightning flowed down to the ground so that it was now a line of fire laid out across the grass, which did not burn. Stamford ran faster. When he was some five feet from the lightning and the woods, the lightning shot off away from him and stabbed itself into another tree, splitting that tree in half. Stamford arrived just in time to see the tree come apart and the two equal parts decide to go their separate ways. A punishing sadness took hold of him. Every day it was one damn thing after another.
The rain continued and the storm moved away from him, toward the cabins. The crows were at his feet. Stamford knelt. While the birds had fallen in deathly disarray, something had come along and laid them out nicely on the ground-feathers collected from all about and put back on their wings, their eyes closed, black bodies and wings glistening as though with life. Nothing burnt. They lay side by side, just as they must have perched side by side before death snuck up on them. They had never had such a pretty look in life, Stamford thought. And even if they came back to life, this, at that moment, was the best they would ever look. Now all they needed was for someone to come along and provide them each with a tiny coffin.
Stamford licked his fingers and rubbed them on each bird. “I just need a little to get me over to the other side,” he said to the first crow. He closed his eyes and waited for death. He began talking to the second bird, “Now don’t be stingy with what you got.” He continued to rub his fingers on them and lick his hand. He talked to each bird separately, as if the history he had with one was distinct and different from the one he had with the other. To speak to them as a couple, as one unit, would be disrespectful to the history he shared with either. He continued licking his fingers and touching the birds, but neither bird seemed very interested in sharing its little piece of death. “Thas all right, old bird. I won’t fault you,” he said to the first crow. “I can understand that you just had anough for yourself,” he said to the second bird. “I won’t grudge you that.” He felt something heavy and not rainlike fall on him and he touched the top of his head. He pulled down what he began to realize were the yolks of eggs. Then, bits of eggshells fell into his open hand, dull green pieces that were spotted dark brown. He looked up and more of the eggs and shells fell, along with twigs and sticks that had been the nest of the crows. He considered the shells and the yolks for quite some time, and all the while the rain continued. He looked about as if someone had called his name. Then he took some of the eggshells and tucked them under each of the birds’ left wings. He rubbed the yolks over their bodies. And when he was done, the ground opened up and took the birds in. He cried.
This was the beginning of Stamford Crow Blueberry, the man who went on with his wife to found the Richmond Home for Colored Orphans. In 1909 the colored people in Richmond unofficially renamed a very long street for him and his wife, and year after year for decades those people petitioned the white people who ran the government of Richmond to make the name official. In 1987, after a renewed drive for renaming led by one of Delphie’s great-granddaughters, the city of Richmond relented, and it put up new signs all along the way to prove that it was official.
Stamford walked back to the bucket of blueberries and knelt and immediately began to feel that maybe the bucket didn’t have enough. But the children had been waiting a long time and he didn’t want to disappoint them. He shook the bucket, thinking that might make it look fuller. It helped, but not by much. Maybe the boy might be fooled that it was a full bucket, but the girl knew things and she would know he had failed to bring a full bucket. His shoulders sagged, and the rain continued. He saw one blueberry rolling down a little hill in the bucket and he caught it. He held the berry between his fingers, began to squeeze it. It bled a little juice. The blueberry was now no good for any child and he regretted having squeezed it. Not to let it go to waste, he put it in his mouth. It wasn’t bad but he could never make a life of eating the things-God had given him a head full of good teeth, but not a one of them was sweet. What the hell had happened to that full bucket? He chewed and swallowed the blueberry, and then he raised his eyes to see a cabin flying his way through the rainy air. It was not moving in any threatening way and so Stamford was not afraid. But he did stand up.
The cabin continued on and settled itself on the ground not ten feet from him. The door opened and Delores was standing in the doorway, her hands behind her back, quite pleased with herself in that way of little girls who had a secret they were dying to tell. She opened her mouth, her teeth and tongue stained blue, a girl happy with her blueberries. Her brother Patrick appeared beside her and he opened his blue mouth to show his happiness as well. Then, just like that, the boy shut the door hard. It wasn’t a comment on Stamford: Despite what his sister always said about him, he didn’t need to be told something three times. The cabin rose and rose and went back the way it had come. The closed door must have acted like a kind of eye because the cabin turned around so the door could see the way back to the quarters.
In 1987, the city of Richmond had just hired a young woman from Holy Cross College and that woman’s first assignment was to design a sign that could contain the names of Mr. and Mrs. Blueberry. Delphie’s great-granddaughter, who was on the city council, wanted both names on the street signs, not just something like “Blueberry Street.” The black woman from Holy Cross did well, and the night of the day she completed her task, she called her mother in Washington, D.C., and read to her what she had managed to fit on one sign-Stamford and Delphie Crow Blueberry Street.
After he had given the bucket to Delores and Patrick, Stamford stood in the lane in the mud and the rain and counted the doors to the cabins where children lived. He left out the ones with infants because he knew they weren’t old enough to bite down and enjoy blueberries. And he had never heard of a sugar tit laced with blueberries. He kept counting wrong and he had to do it over several times. Once that was done, he knew he had a new problem-how to find enough buckets for all those damn blueberries.
The rain stopped the next day, but it came back three days later. It was far worse and anyone walking in it felt the sting. “It was a very painful rain,” K. Woodford, a historian from Lynchburg College, wrote in 1952. The rain led to great flooding, and the Lynchburg historian noted, without hyperbole, that it may well have been the worst any county had suffered since Virginia became a state. Twenty-one human beings lost their lives, including eight adult slaves, five men and three women. All the children, whether white or black or Indian, free or in bondage, were spared. No one counted the livestock and the dogs and the cats that were killed because there were so many. The land was covered with animal bodies for weeks and weeks.
Three weeks to the day after Clement beat Stamford, the man from Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance came back for the third time in his rented buggy and was told by Caldonia that she wanted no insurance. Maude was looking over her shoulder, sighing with displeasure.
”Good morning, Mrs. Townsend,” the white man said to Caldonia before she sent him away, the big book in one hand and his hat in the other hand. It was his first chance to speak to her directly. “We are pained at your unfortunate loss. My company, Atlas Life, Casualty and Assurance, and all its employees send their everlasting condolences.”
Caring for Stamford after he was beaten convinced Caldonia to try to put her grief aside as much as she could and get to the business of the plantation. She decided, after hearing from Celeste and Gloria and Clement, that Clement would not be punished. She sent word by Moses to Stamford that he was to mind what he was doing from now on. “No more fighting, from anyone,” she told Moses, though it was many days before Stamford obeyed, after the crows, after the blueberries and the cabin.
Moses did, on his own, require that Stamford and Clement work a few hours on three Sundays. They could have appealed to Caldonia, but they thought everything he did came on orders from her. The first Sunday was one not long after Stamford had gone back to the fields after the beating, and Elias worked for him after Celeste said she did not think Stamford could do seven days in a row.
In the wake of the beating, Caldonia now had Moses come and report to her each evening after all work was done. He stood in the parlor and told her all that had happened during the day, from the moment just after breakfast when he met the slaves in the lane until the moment in the evening when he told them their day was done. At first, the report was over and done with in a matter of minutes. But as the days since Henry’s death piled up, he would talk longer and longer, for he had come to sense that Caldonia wanted his words. Maude, and sometimes Fern, would peel away before he was done, but Caldonia and Calvin listened to every word. And when Caldonia was finally alone in the house and her mother and brother and Fern had gone away, she continued to listen and his report became even longer, sometimes as much as an hour. Soon, he began to leave off from talking about the work of the day and create stories out of nothing about the slaves. Loretta sat in a chair in a corner, knowing what was true and what was not but never telling her mistress.
The evening of the day Fern left, Caldonia told Moses to sit down. He looked over at Loretta in her chair, and after a long minute’s hesitation, he sat down. Caldonia told Loretta that she could retire for the evening and Loretta left.
“You were here from the beginning, weren’t you?” Caldonia said.
“You were here with Henry in the beginning, from that first day?”
“Yessum, I was.”
“What did you do?”
Moses took his eyes from his lap and began to invent some early days when they were building the house and there was not much on the land except what God had put there. Caldonia was at the edge of the settee, in her mourning dress. “Now Masta Henry always knowed what kinda house he wanted to build, Mistress. I don’t even think he even knowed about you at that particular time, but he musta had some idea that you was out there somewhere waitin in your own kinda way, cause he set about buildin a house that you would want. He built it up from nothin. I was there but I wasn’t there like he was there. He said to me that first day, he said, ‘Moses, we gon start with the kitchen. A wife needs a place to fix her meals for her family. Thas where we gon start.’ And he bent down and Masta drove in that first nail. Bam! That was a Monday, Mistress, cause Masta Henry didn’t believe in startin somethin on a Sunday, God’s day.”
Caldonia, her hands clasped in her lap, leaned back and closed her eyes. The story about the first nail came a little more than a month after Henry had been in his grave. It was gospel among slaves that one of the quickest ways to hell was to tell lies about dead people, but Moses did not think about that as he spoke of the first nail, did not think about the dead needing the truth to be told about them. He did not think about it until that day Oden Peoples, the Cherokee patroller, said to the men around him about Moses, “Heft him on up here. I’ll take him in. He ain’t gon bleed for long.”
Barnum Kinsey, the patroller and the poorest white man in Manchester County, was quite sober when he met up with Harvey Travis and Travis’s brother-in-law, Oden Peoples, one night in early September a little more than five weeks after Henry Townsend died. Barnum had been sober for three and a half weeks, and he knew from experience that if he could survive the fourth-maybe even the fifth-week without drinking, he could move through the rest of the year without the craving that had often seized him in those first weeks, the craving that was gnawing at him even as he rode to meet up with Travis and Oden under the brightest moon he had seen in some time. After that fifth week of being sober, he would be able to look the craving full in the eye and say no and tell it to get on away from him. Then, with renewed strength, he could harvest whatever his land would give him that fall and for the rest of the year he could hire himself out so he and his family could make it with a little comfort through the winter.
He was desperately afraid of being without in the winter, saw the winter ahead as God’s challenge for him to pick himself up from drink and walk on two legs without tottering. His grandfather, who had also been a drinker, had died in the winter, gone out for a drink and froze to death on the fourth-coldest night of that winter. Barnum’s father had not been a drinker, so Barnum had been thinking for a long time that the curse tended to skip generations, for not one of his sons from his first marriage showed a need for the stuff. The boys from the second marriage had yet to smell themselves so drink wasn’t yet a problem. As for the women through the generations in his family, the curse had avoided all of them, and they moved through the world unsoiled, their minds clear without a need for a challenge every winter God sent.
The three of them, Barnum, Travis and Oden, were nearing ten o’clock when Augustus Townsend came up the road on his wagon pulled by a mule who was as tired as his owner. The mule was older than the other one Augustus had and he didn’t work him as much as the younger one, but every now and then he would take him out to show the mule that he still had faith in him. The mule and his man had delivered a chest and a chair and a walking stick to a man two counties away, a white man who had recently married off the last of his three daughters and so had a little money to spend on himself. “Make me happy with somethin,” he had told Augustus, “before that next grandchild pops into my world.” Augustus, as usual, had underestimated the time for the trip there and back and so he and the mule were about a day late getting home to his wife Mildred. Augustus had been thinking of Henry all day and all day he had been trying not to.
“Just hold up there,” Travis told Augustus. “Just hold up there and show who you are.” Augustus’s wagon carried a lantern hoisted up from the seat. The mule liked having the light. It seemed to provide him some peace of mind as he went about his work. The lantern and the moon offered enough light for Travis to see Augustus was someone he had stopped so many times before.
Augustus stopped and brought out his free papers. He was too tired to talk, but he also knew words would be wasted on them, at least with the white man Travis and probably with the Cherokee Oden.
“Evenin, Augustus,” Barnum said. Augustus had not seen him at first.
“Mr. Barnum, evenin. How your family?”
“They be good, as the Lord keeps them.”
“This ain’t no damn church social,” Travis said, grabbing the free papers from Augustus. “This is the law’s business.” Travis could read and he held the papers up and borrowed light from Augustus’s lantern as he turned the papers over and over. He did not read them, because he had read them many times before. You and me, Augustus thought watching the white man, know them word by word now. Unable to read himself, Augustus, early in his freedom, had given a free colored man a walking stick just to read the papers to him five times a day for two weeks and in the course of all the listening had memorized every word.
“They be good papers,” Augustus said. “I’ve been a free man for a long time, Mr. Travis.”
“You ain’t free less me and the law say you free,” Travis said.
“Now, Harvey, we been knowin Augustus many a year,” Barnum said.
“Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know. You keep your potato trap shut. Tell what you know to the bottle if it has a mind to listen to you. Ain’t that right, Oden?”
“I’ll stand with you,” Oden said, “if thas what you sayin. Barnum, John wouldn’t want us to let just anybody pass just cause we done it many times before. That ain’t legal.”
Travis waved the papers about and said to Augustus, “I hate the way you just ride up and down these roads without a care, without a ‘Yes sir, ain’t it a good day, sir?’ Without any kinda ‘May I kiss your sweet ass today, sir.’ ”
“I’m only doin what I got a right to do,” Augustus said.
Travis began eating the papers, starting at the bottom right corners, chewed the corners up and swallowed. “Thas what I think a your right to do anything you got a right to do.”
“Now wait a minute,” Augustus said. “You stop right now.” He stood up in the wagon, the reins in his left hand. The mule had never moved since Augustus had stopped him.
Travis began to eat the rest of the papers, making a loud show of it, and when he was done eating he licked his fingers. “You sho you know where them fingers been?” Oden said. Travis laughed and belched.
“Harvey, for God sakes, them papers belong to him,” Barnum said. “What he gon do?” He looked beyond Augustus and saw something making its way toward them. He hoped it was Skiffington. “That ain’t right, Harvey. This just ain’t right.”
Travis wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Right ain’t got nothin to do with it,” he said. “Best meal I’ve had in many Sundays.” Some of the paper was stuck in his teeth and he sucked on his teeth, and the paper came easily away.
“I wouldn’t wanna be you in the mornin when you have to shit that out,” Oden said.
“I don’t know,” Travis said, “it might make for a smooth run off. Couldn’t be no worse than what collard greens do to me.”
A wagon twice as large as Augustus’s came up to the four men. Driving it was a large black man and beside him was a much smaller white man covered in beaver pelts. The heat of September didn’t seem to bother him. In the back of the wagon were four black adults and a black child. The white man in the wagon took two beaver feet and sniffed them deeply. “There ain’t nothin like the smell of Tennessee,” he said.
“Darcy, Darcy,” Travis said. “Where you goin? Off to get married again? You wear out women faster than I wear out my welcome.”
“Just passin through with me and mine before your sheriff gets sight of me and puts too much of his snout in my business. John Skiffington shoulda been named John Sniffington.” Darcy was forty-two, but with the unkempt beard that went to his knees and with much of his body covered in pelts, he could have gone for seventy-five.
Travis laughed and Oden followed. Barnum was silent. The child in the back of the wagon coughed.
“As it is, Darcy,” Travis said, “I think you come along at just the right time. I didn’t think you ever knew what time it was, but tonight, without knowin it, you look to be on time. God works in mysterious ways.”
“Praise his name. I was born with a clock in my head,” Darcy said. “Tick tock. Tick tock. Nighttime headin for more nighttime. Tick tock.”
“Well, this ain’t exactly what I had in mind when I stopped this nigger, but this here will do just the same,” Travis said.
“Whatcha got for me, Harvey?”
“A nigger who didn’t know what to do with his freedom. Thought it meant he was free.”
“That one there,” and Darcy pointed to Oden. Darcy laughed and elbowed the black man beside him. “It’s been a long time since I sold an Indian. Maybe five months. Didn’t bring me the money I was hopin. Remember that one, Stennis?” and he elbowed the black man again.
“Bought anough if I recall correctly, Masta,” Stennis said.
“Well, I’ll bow to your recall cause yours has always been better than mine. That clock in my head don’t like to share it with no memory power. Selfish somebitch. I’ll take the Indian and the nigger both.”
“Not him,” Travis said of Oden. “We’s kin. We’s family. You know Oden. I’m talkin bout the nigger in the wagon.”
Barnum said to Darcy, “Mister, that Augustus Townsend is a free man. You can’t buy him. Just leave him be.”
Travis leaned over and pushed Barnum and spat at him. “ ‘That Augustus is a free man. That Augustus is a free man.’ I liked you better when you was so likkered up you could barely stand, Barnum. You made more sense then. A nigger’s for sale if I say he’s for sale, and this one’s for sale.”
“Mister,” Augustus said to Darcy, “I am a free man and been that way for a lotta years. Freed from Mr. William Robbins.”
“Yes yes yes. Happy Christmas happy Christmas,” Darcy said. “What you askin tonight, Harvey?”
“I tell you he’s free,” Barnum said.
“Gimme two hundred and I’ll sleep good tonight,” Travis said and pointed his pistol at Barnum.
“Damnit! Thas a month of good nights, Harvey. You tryin to turn me into your damn mattress and pillow.”
“Try twenty-five dollars. You got them two sayin he free, Harvey. That could be trouble for me down the line.”
“Whoa, Darcy. This nigger makes furniture. He carves wood, and if you couldn’t find wood, I’m sure he’s got a good back for whatever else you need. Gimme that hundred.”
“Still, he say he a free man, Harvey. Thas a risk for me. Thirty dollars.”
Augustus took his reins and prepared to move away. Oden pulled out his pistol, looked a second at Travis and aimed the gun at Augustus. “You should stay. I think you should stay,” Oden said. Augustus halted.
“Yes, stay,” Travis said. “Barnum gon pull out the banjo and we’ll have a good time. Now, Darcy, I got risks too. Fifty dollars, then. I’ll settle for fifty.”
“Hmm,” Darcy said. “I must say you are a mountain of a negotiator. Stennis, could we stand to put fifty dollars in that man’s pocket?”
“Don’t ask that nigger bout white folks’ business,” Travis said.
“I live and die with Stennis,” Darcy said. “Harvey, you don’t know what all he’s done for me.”
“Marse,” Stennis said, “we could stand fifty dollars but I don’t think we could stand much more.”
Travis shouted, “Seventy-five dollars. For the sake of God in his heaven, Darcy. Don’t let your nigger cheat me. Don’t let a nigger do white folks’ business.”
“Then fifty dollars it is,” said Darcy, and he sniffed on the beaver feet again.
“Shit! Then ten dollars for the mule,” Travis said.
“What mule?” Darcy said.
“That one right there.” Someone in the back of the large wagon shifted and Augustus heard the chains move. The child coughed again.
“You can give me that for free, Harvey. I don’t think that’s much of a mule. Does he sing and dance in the moonlight?”
“Don’t pee on me that way,” Travis said. “You can say like you done in the past that I don’t know nigger flesh. I’ll leave you safe with that one, but I do know my mules and horses. I do know them, Darcy. I want ten dollars. I deserve ten dollars.”
“All right, Harvey. But that mule had better hold up. He’d better be worth every penny, cause if he ain’t I’m gonna sic the law on you.” Darcy laughed and right away he was joined in the laughter by Stennis. Then Travis laughed, followed by Oden. Stennis reached down between his knees to the floor of the wagon and brought up a strongbox. He unlocked it with a key on a string around his neck, took out some coins and put them in a tiny sack and tossed the sack to Travis.
Darcy told Augustus to get down from the wagon and Augustus said no. “I’m a free man, mister.”
“Yes yes yes. Happy Christmas happy Christmas. Now get down from there.”
Augustus said he would not.
“Stennis,” Darcy said, “why are we threatened on all sides by the incorrigible? Why do they threaten us every which way we turn? Have we displeased our God in some fashion?”
“I don’t know, Marse. I done studied it and studied it and I still don’t know.”
“But, Stennis, you would agree that we are threatened on all sides?”
“Thas a true statement of what you talkin bout,” Stennis said.
Travis holstered his pistol and dismounted and then Oden dismounted, still pointing the gun at Augustus. But before either of them was well settled on the ground, Stennis had jumped down from the wagon and over to Augustus in one effortless motion. He pulled Augustus from the wagon and began pummeling him.
“Don’t bruise my fruit,” Darcy said. Stennis and Travis dragged Augustus around to the back of Darcy’s wagon and soon he was chained to the black man nearest the end of the wagon. Augustus wanted to say again that he was a free man, but he was in too much pain, and the words would not have come through anyway because his mouth was full of blood and no sooner had he spat some out, his mouth filled up again.
Stennis unharnessed Augustus’s mule and tied it to the back of the wagon.
“I will now,” Darcy said to Travis when he and Oden were back on their horses and Stennis was back on the wagon beside him, “I will now allow the wind to take me and mine away.” Darcy pulled the pelts tighter around his neck. “Oh, to be in Tennessee. That is my dream, Stennis.” “Thas mine, too.” “I call on God to grant me my dream, Stennis.” Their wagon had two horses and Stennis took up the reins and without a word the horses started going and the mule came along and as quick as anything the wagon had disappeared.
It was nearing eleven o’clock. Barnum looked down to where Augustus had gone and said, “You oughtna done that, Harvey. You know you shouldna. You know that and I know that.” He turned to Oden. “Even Oden know that.”
“I don’t know no such thing,” Oden said.
“Then you should. Both yall shouldna done that. Why?”
“That is not it,” Travis said to Barnum. “It is not why he and I are doin it, but why you aren’t doin it. That is the question for all time. Why a man, even somethin worthless like you, sees what is right and still refuses to do it.” Travis hawked and spat in the road. He said, “That is all the question we ever need to ask.” He was silent for a few moments. Then he said, “All right now,” and he handed a $20 gold piece to Barnum and tossed another $20 piece to Oden, who had holstered his gun after getting back on his horse and was able to catch the money with both hands.
“I don’t want it,” Barnum said. “I won’t have it.” He handed the gold piece back to Travis.
“You’ll take it and you’ll like it,” Travis said, taking out his pistol and again aiming it at Barnum. “You takin the nigger side now? Is that it? You steppin away from the white man and takin the nigger side? Thas what it is?”
“Yeah, thas what it is,” Oden said. “Takin the nigger side against the white man?”
“I just don’t want it, is all,” Barnum said.
Travis rode up beside Barnum, heading south while Barnum was heading north. They were so close their thighs touched and the horses, uncomfortable being so close, began to twitch. Travis put his pistol to Barnum’s temple. “I said you’ll take it and like it.” He put the money inside Barnum’s shirt. “Happy Christmas happy Christmas,” he said.
Barnum rode away.
“And not a word a thanks, huh, Barnum?” Travis shouted after him. “I should report you to Skiffington for not carryin your patrollin duties through to the end. Not a word a thanks, Oden.”
“No,” Oden said, “and not a good night either.”
“We may as well shut the night down,” Travis said. “We have found, tried and punished the one criminal out here tonight. The one true runaway out and about. We may as well shut down the night, Oden.”
“May as well,” and then Oden started up. “Give a greetin to Zara and the chaps for me, willya? Say I’m thinkin bout em.”
“Yes. And a greetin to Tassock and them chaps for me,” Travis said. “I’ll see to the nigger’s wagon. Good night.”
Oden said, “Good night.”
Travis watched him go away and after a few minutes he dismounted and used the fire from Augustus’s lantern to set ablaze the straw in the back of the wagon that cushioned furniture on its way to new owners. When the fire was good and strong, Travis picked up kindling from the side of the road and threw it into the wagon. Then he mounted again and looked at the fire and did not move. He was determined to see the fire through to the end. The horse backed away as the fire grew hotter and Travis let him do it. After nearly an hour, Travis got off the animal, and walking with the reins in his hand, he stood at the fire. His horse was slightly uncomfortable but he turned and reassured it that everything was good and the animal calmed. It was the smartest beast he had ever known. He had taught it to back away when he said the word “Fire.” And at the word “Water” it knew to come forward again. Now the horse stood silent behind him and Travis thought he could hear its heart beating in the quiet with just the crackling of the fire and the insects communicating with one another as the only other sounds in the world. Every now and again the breath of the horse would blow Travis’s hair all about.
He stayed to the end with the fire, watched as the metal on the wagon dropped as all the supporting wood gave way. About one that morning, the fire began to fail, then, nearly an hour later, it went to its dying side, with just a few strong embers here and there. He dropped the reins and took up dirt from the road and poured it over what was left of the fire. Smoke rose, gray, feeble, almost pointless because it went up only a foot or so and then dissipated.
He had first come to know Augustus Townsend many years ago through a chair Augustus had made for a white man in the town of Manchester. The man weighed more than 400 pounds. “Over twenty-seven stones” was how the man put it. He was a bachelor, but that had nothing to do with his weight. Harvey Travis had gone to see the man one day about a woodcutting job. In the man’s parlor was Augustus’s chair, plain, not even painted, but smooth to the touch, and when the man sat in it, the chair did not complain, not one squeak. It just held up and did its job, waiting for the man to put on another 300 pounds. When the man left the room to get Travis’s money, Travis examined the chair, looked all about it trying to discover its secret. The chair gave nothing. It was a very good chair. It was a chair worth stealing.
Now, as the fire from the wagon died out, Travis turned around and wiped both hands on his pants and took up the reins. He had taught the horse to bob his head once at the words “Good morning.” “Good mornin,” he said to the horse and he bobbed once. The horse had also been taught to bob twice at “Good afternoon,” and with “Good evening” or “Good night,” it would bob three times. Travis said “Good mornin” again but felt the need for far more and he continued saying it and the horse continued bobbing his head. Then, as if “Good mornin” was not enough, he went through again and again all the greetings of a day and a night and the horse kept bobbing until, at last, the animal, exhausted, confused, lowered its head and did not respond anymore. Travis stood for a long while and rubbed the horse’s forehead. He had, as well, taught the horse to take him home. It helped when the road was a straight one, straight as the crows flew. Otherwise, the horse sometimes went down a road that was not toward home. Travis mounted. “Take me home,” he told the horse, who had just been through one of the longest days of his life. The horse took him home.