7 Job. Mongrels. Parting Shots.
Somewhere between the town of Tunck near the Waal River, the Netherlands, and Johnston County, North Carolina-where Counsel Skiffington, cousin to Sheriff John Skiffington, and his people had done well for three generations-Saskia Wilhelm, a newlywed, contracted smallpox, though she was never to be ill from it a day in her life. Married three months, she and her husband, Thorbecke, who also contracted the disease, took two months to get across Europe to England. Thorbecke was not a good man, would not make a good husband and father, something Saskia’s father told her for the eleventh time a month before she ran away with Thorbecke. The love she had for Thorbecke, however; was a fevered one. Her mother told her it would burn itself out if she gave it time, but Saskia disappeared with Thorbecke and the love only grew. After what happened to her with him, in Europe, in America, she would never love another human being in the same way.
The young man knew that along the Waal River he had a reputation worth nothing and during the trip across Europe he vowed, not to Saskia but to himself, that he would do better and one day return to Tunck and all the other towns along the Waal and have everyone say to his face how wrong they had been about him. He vowed this in France, but was sent away because of various misdeeds, and he vowed it in England, but was sent away from there as well. His punishment would not be prison, the English decided, but the pain of never being able to enjoy England again. Thorbecke made the vow again on the ship to New York, where he and Saskia settled more than five years before Henry Townsend died. Thorbecke would live to be seventy-three, but he never returned to the Waal, and neither did Saskia, who lived to be seventy-one. They died in places four thousand miles apart. She had no children when she died. Nothing had ever come along to tell her, as her mother and father might have told her, that there was a love beyond Thorbecke.
Saskia had a sense of her mistake midway on the journey to America. She could have returned to her people in Tunck, but she still felt for him and thought all along the way that she would never be forgiven, might even be told just to return to her husband. At first, Thorbecke worked as a fisherman along the Hudson River, but the captain and his crew got the notion that Thorbecke was bad luck and he was sent on his way. He went to peddling in New York City after that, clothes, trinkets, fruits and vegetables. He failed again, as he had a viperous temper and drove away customers. Soon he began to live on just what Saskia was making as a maid with the wealthy in the city. One of those families was the one in the photograph that Calvin Newman owned. The frozen dog in the picture was named Otto, after Saskia’s own dog back in Tunck.
She did not make much as a maid. Room and board were part of what she made, and that could not be turned into money for Thorbecke. He sent her into prostitution and then, after more than a year, he sold her to a man who took her and three other women, all of them from Europe, south, first to Philadelphia and, finally, to North Carolina, where that man’s father and mother had a brothel. In that brothel, Saskia worked and put Thorbecke away, then she put her people and all of Tunck away.
It was there that Manfred Carlyle fell in love with her. By the time they met, a little less than three years before Henry died, love was not something Saskia cared about. She welcomed him each time he came, told him all that he wanted to hear, and though he forgot during the course of it that he was paying for the words, she did not. He came to her often, forever desperate to be near her. “I made the trip here in less time than I thought I would,” he said once, his face sweaty and red from the ride. “Then I will prepare your reward,” Saskia said.
Carlyle was twenty years her senior, and he was one of Counsel Skiffington’s creditors. John Skiffington’s cousin allowed Carlyle to “air out” at his plantation from all the whiskey and sex at the brothel. Counsel had always been pleased to accommodate a man he owed money to and he told his overseer, Cameron Darr, to stay by Carlyle and make him happy. In a little cottage at the northeast corner of Counsel’s plantation, Carlyle would air out, sleeping for some fourteen hours a day. On what would be his last visit, Darr made him happy by drinking with him. After the three days of airing out, Carlyle went the twenty miles to his own place, to his family who were gray things after his colorful time with Saskia. Like Thorbecke and Saskia, Carlyle, too, would not suffer a day from smallpox, and his family and his slaves were spared as well. On that last trip from Counsel’s plantation, someone stole his horse while he peed down at a riverbank. “That shoulda told me somethin,” he told a friend months later, back at the brothel.
Counsel Skiffington had suffered through three years of failed crops and then, in the fourth year, the year Saskia arrived in Johnston County, he began to prosper again. He considered it a good year if each slave produced $250 worth of crops but for those three terrible years, he got only $65 from each slave. The times had been so hard that the house servants, people with flawless skin and hands that had not known any blisters that mattered, were sent into the fields to work with the hope that more hands could wring more from the land. Carlyle was one of four creditors, only one of them a bank, and the creditors were kind to him during those years, though the bank sent a man out every other month to check on the health of the plantation. In that fourth year, the year of recovery, the profit from each slave was $300, and the bank man stopped coming. Counsel was on his way to an even better fifth year when, in the middle of a quiet night, Darr the overseer woke with a cough so loud that it woke Counsel’s wife, Belle, in their mansion a quarter of a mile away. Her husband slept on, being the kind of man-as Belle noted once in a letter to her cousin-in-law Winifred Skiffington-who could sleep through Jesus knocking on the door. Darr’s coughing woke the four Skiffington children, too, but Belle and two of the children’s slaves managed to get them back to sleep. She told the servants to return to bed and she did the same, but found sleep elusive even after the overseer’s coughing abated about an hour later.
There was no more coughing from Darr after that first night, but one slave after another began to fall ill with headaches, chills, nausea and an overwhelming pain in their backs and limbs. “They are not pretendin,” the overseer told Counsel. “I would know pretendin and this ain’t it.” Darr, a man with five children, had very little beyond the life he had on the plantation, and he had so liked hearing Carlyle talk of all the places he had been and all the women who gave him heaven and how he settled at last on Saskia. Darr was not a drinking man but he had drunk that last time with Carlyle because it made his tales all the sweeter to hear, all the sweeter to remember. He told Counsel about the slaves not pretending a day or so before the dusty red spots began to appear on the slaves and on his own children. Counsel decided to bring in the white doctor, knowing that what the slaves had was not a one-week stumble on the way to a profitable fifth year.
The doctor quarantined the place and it wasn’t long before word spread throughout the region that “A Child’s Dream,” as Belle had christened the plantation, was falling to pieces. The man from the bank, fearing that his employer would make him go out to Counsel’s even with the quarantine, quit his job.
By the time Manfred Carlyle had been home four weeks with his family, more than half of the slaves on Counsel’s plantation had died, some twenty-one human beings, ranging in age from nine months to forty-nine years; that number included one-year-old Becky, who was teething but whose mother had nursed her as often as she could with the hope that the disease would pass on by her child; seventeen-year-old Nancy, who was days from marrying a man she thought she loved, a man with enough muscles for two men; thirty-nine-year-old-Essie, who had just committed adultery for the eighth time; and twenty-nine-year-old Torry, who had a harelip but who had four days before he died swallowed whole two raw chicken gizzards, having been told by a root worker that they would cure his “affliction.” Then, after those slaves perished, Darr’s wife died, and so did three of their children. Ten more slaves died, and that same day the first of Counsel’s children died, the oldest girl, freckle-faced Laura, who played the piano so well. In the three days that followed her death the disease swept up nearly all the rest of them, down to the youngest slave, ten-week-old Paula, whose mother had died in childbirth. Only Counsel remained, as healthy as the rainy evening his mother gave birth to him.
The animals would live, too, managing somehow to get by even with all their caregivers dead. The creditors, weeks and weeks later, would not get much for livestock from a place God had turned his back on. A buyer’s place might be next if he bought a cow or a horse; if God could do that to Counsel Skiffington, one potential buyer noted, then what all would he do to poor me?
In the end, after Counsel had tried to drive the animals away, there was not much more than the land, and even that, more than a year later when creditors and others were brave enough to go on it, would be sold for a little less than 45 percent of what it was worth. Belle was the penultimate person to die, just hours before a slave, fifty-three-year-old Alba, wandered in delirium away from his cabin and sat down to death in front of Carlyle’s airing-out cottage. With Belle’s death, Counsel burned down the mansion. From the first death he had buried no one and all the people in his family, including the bodies of nine servants, were burned along with the building. He then went to the cottage where Carlyle had stayed and Darr’s place, and he burned those structures down. The barns. The smokehouse. The blacksmith shop. Everything was burned to the ground. The cabins of the slaves, many with the bodies of the dead still in them, resisted the fire and most of them stayed up, scorched but ready for more tenants. The mud and cheap brick structures would be standing when the first creditor’s accountant arrived to see what he had to deal with. Eight months later, in Georgia, Counsel would take note of a two-door cabin built for two slave families, and it would come to him that the cabins on his land stayed up because they, like the two-door place, had close to nothing in them. Even God’s mansion would burn easily if there were a piano in the parlor and 300 books in the library from floor to ceiling and wooden furniture that came from England and France and worlds beyond.
The crops would escape the fire and would thrive, tended by no one. The fields had not had such bounty in more than seven years. There would be no harvest in the usual sense, as no one came to reap what the slaves had sown. Had someone counted up what crops the fields had to give, it would have come to more than $325 a slave.
The fire at A Child’s Dream burned for three days. Counsel left that second day, heavy with all the sorrow he would ever know, and went west in the county and then south, avoiding all human beings as best he could. He did not care, but it occurred to him in South Carolina that what he had done was a crime, since much of what he had belonged to others. He continued on, aimless, saddled with the memories of his loved ones and the end of a plantation that even men in Washington, D.C., knew about. He had kin in South Carolina, and Belle had people in Georgia, on the coast, but he decided not to go to those towns. Who could understand what had happened to him? And he had the cousin he had grown up with in Manchester County, Virginia, but he had always had so much more than John Skiffington had and Counsel had never missed a chance to let John know that. He could not see himself standing on John’s doorstep, penniless, even though he sensed that John would have held his arms open wide and given him all he had. So he rode on, not even knowing that he just wanted some peace, and not knowing, until much later, that he wanted back all that he had lost.
About three months after he left his plantation, Counsel came to Chattahoochee, Georgia, south of Columbus, thinking that he was far enough away from the coast where some of Belle’s relatives lived. He had ridden nearly every day except for a two-week stretch in Estill, South Carolina, where a rough cold had put him on his back. It was like no other cold he had ever had and he suspected that it was more, that the smallpox he was not even trying to outrun had finally caught up with him. He had brought some money from North Carolina and that afforded a place in a back room at an old couple’s boardinghouse. He paid for a week’s stay, thinking that by the end of that week, he would be dead. The old woman may have suspected what was in mind because she told him, on the third day as she fed him, that no one had ever died in her house and he would not be the first. He recovered and left their place in the night, taking the horse and the saddle that he had given them.
In Chattahoochee, a month after leaving Estill, illness found him again, just as he had hired himself to a man with a large-sized farm. The man had no slaves, only free Negroes he hired when he needed them. Counsel found himself strangely uncomfortable around blacks who toiled but were not slaves, people who came and went as they pleased. He said nothing, needing the money to be able to push on. He worked three days and then collapsed on the fourth day. “I am dying and there is nothing to be done,” he said to the Negroes and the white farmer as they carried him from the field. “Then we’ll find a place for you out yonder,” the white man said, pointing to a cemetery that Counsel had passed by his first day there. He stayed in the room in the white man’s house and was attended to mostly by Matilda, the black woman who cooked and cleaned for them. If she knew how to talk, she never said a word to him, not even good morning, not even good night. He began to recover, slowly, and day by day he cursed God for playing with him. “Make up your mind,” he said to God. “I don’t mind dying. I just want you to make up your mind.”
Late one night, three weeks after he took ill, he waited until all were asleep in the house and took money from a desk in the man’s parlor and saddled one of the man’s horses and left. He wanted to go to Alabama and eventually make it to California. He knew nothing about California, only that it was very far from North Carolina. In November, in Carthage, Mississippi, he bought a pistol to replace the one he had not been able to find in the dark in the Estill farmhouse. That 1840 Allen pepperbox had belonged to his father and all through Alabama he had thought he might go back to the farmer and return the money so he would not have to be without his father’s pistol. But so much more that had been his father’s had been burned up in North Carolina and he realized, nearing Carthage, how foolish it was to dwell on a mere gun.
Outside of Merryville, Louisiana, in Beauregard Parish, he came to a wide expanse of land that seemed without end, parched grass and soil widening with cracks that were a foot or more in some places. The trees seemed not to have grown up out of the ground but to have been placed on the land, like a piece of furniture in a room. His horse, on his own, began to move slowly and Counsel felt the animal might at any moment decide to turn around and head back. He would have abided by that decision. Then, little by little, the land greened and cypress after cypress appeared and the horse moved ahead with more confidence. Counsel saw pelicans and thought he could smell the sea. But he still saw no sign of human beings.
The green land began to even out and at last he could see a house and a smaller structure in the distance, a place he might reach in two hours or so depending upon how fast his horse would go. He took his time, thinking what he saw was some trick of a tiring mind, and he came to the house in about an hour. But after riding for that hour, he was back in a desolate place again. The land seemed incapable of growing anything but sorrow, yet, as Counsel looked about, he could see that some effort had been made to farm. And in a few spots he saw some success, though he did not make out what was growing. The crops were about three feet high. The house was leaning to the right, and the barnlike building next to it was leaning to the left.
A mule came out of the barn and looked away from where Counsel and his horse were and then looked at Counsel and moseyed out to him. The mule nudged the horse in the nose and the horse nudged back.
Counsel had seen the smoke from the chimney about a half hour earlier and he dismounted and went up to the door. Before knocking, he took one last look about. Everything seemed better from the porch; it was a place that might well sustain a man and his family, if sustain was just all he ever wanted. Pelts and game, squirrel and rabbit and somewhat larger animals Counsel had never seen before, hung from the ceiling of the porch from end to end.
The door was ajar. He knocked once and a woman opened the door wide, looked at him as if she were deciding whether he deserved her smile. She didn’t smile but turned to someone in the room and said, “It’s somebody.” Counsel found the woman attractive, especially after she moved her head and he saw the way her neck rose up to meet her hair. The beauty was fading and it was doing so at a fast pace. “Who somebody?” a man said.
A boy about twelve years old came to the door and told Counsel to come in. He called the woman “Ma” and told her to close the damn door after Counsel came in and she did so. A man was at a table in an area that passed for the kitchen. The floor was hard-packed earth. The room smelled heavily of smoke and the humidity hung thick. The house was much bigger than it appeared from the outside, but it was not a house of rooms but one giant one and each area seemed to have a function as rooms in a normal house would. Beds far to the right, stove and table in the back to the left, and near the front of the place was a living area where two girls smaller than the boy were playing on the floor with corncob dolls. Counsel could tell by the way one girl was talking that it was not friendly play.
The man was eating at the table and said to Counsel, “I’m Hiram Jinkins.”
Counsel told him who he was and that he was passing through and would appreciate a place to stay for the night, maybe a little something to eat. Jinkins pointed to a chair across the table from him and indicated that Counsel should sit. The chair had one leg shorter than the others and Counsel found it necessary to balance himself the whole time. He had the feeling that the man would not want him to move elsewhere. The only other empty chair was next to the man and the boy sat in that one soon after Counsel sat down.
“That Meg,” Hiram said, pointing to the woman who came up and took away the empty metal pan that Hiram had been eating from. “And this here Hiram number four,” and nodded sideways to the boy. Counsel said good day to them both. “You say you ain’t ate?” Hiram the man said. “That’s right,” Counsel said. “Well…,” and the woman soon returned with the same metal pan, now brimming with a stew that shared the pan with congealed grease. It had generous portions of meat. Counsel was too hungry to ask what the meat was. The woman set a spoon beside the pan. “Biscuits, too,” the boy said to his mother. “Don’t forget the goddamn biscuits.” Meg brought biscuits and Counsel ate. The girls were still playing in a far part of the room and the one girl with the mean talk had quieted.
“Where you from?” the boy said. “You Louisiana stock?” While he looked to be about twelve, his voice was husky and in a dark room he might have gone for a man.
“Georgia,” Counsel said, trying to remember all he could about the Estill farm.
The room was darkening as evening came on and Meg and the girls went about the place, lighting candles and two lanterns. The boy saw one of the girls with a lantern. He turned quickly in his chair and said, “Save the damn lanterns. You know better. Save the damn lanterns.”
“Where he say?” the man asked the boy softly.
“Georgia. Where your damn ears?”
The man touched both his earlobes at once and said, “Where they always been.”
“Well, act like it. He said Georgia clear as the damn day and you didn’t even hear him. You closer to him than I am and you still didn’t hear him.” For the very first time ever, Counsel missed the evenings with his family, Laura playing the piano, Belle reading to the younger children. Make up your mind, God, that’s all I ask.
“You can go eat shit, boy,” the man said. “Pick up your goddamn spoon and eat shit.”
“I’m doing anough of that already.”
Hiram, the man, said, “What you do in Georgia, Mr. Skiffington? I can tell you know your way round books. I can tell that.”
“How can you tell that?” Hiram, the boy, said. “How can you tell anything bout him when all he did was say his name and Georgia and come in here and eat our food? How can you say that, Pa?”
“Easy nough,” the man said. Out of the corner of his eye Counsel could see Meg standing at the window. There was a draft from somewhere and the candle in that part of the room wavered and now and again, with the intermittent light, she seemed to disappear. The girls were talking but he had no idea where in the huge room they were. “What you do in Georgia?” the man said again.
“I did some farming. I even had a little store, sold some dry goods and whatnot.”
“A man of everything,” Hiram, the man, said. “I like men of everything.”
“That ain’t what he said, Pa. He ain’t done everything and I don’t know why you make it out to be so.”
The man yawned. “I had three children die, then you come along,” he said. He crossed his arms and said to Counsel, “We can put you up in the barn. You think you can live with that?”
“Yes,” Counsel said. “And I’m thankful for that.” He stood up.
“I just know you are,” the boy said.
“Hiram,” the father said, “see Mr. Skiffington gets settled in the barn. Show him where the shithouse is.”
The boy said, “You see him get settled in the damn barn.”
The man held a fist out to Counsel. “Three of em went on by.” He opened one, two, three fingers. “Three of em and then he came along. God and his mysteries.” He shook his head. “Meg, see that this man gets settled in the barn.”
Meg had a candle and two blankets in her hands and led the way and Counsel followed to the barn, leading his horse. “You keep the candle,” she said once she had pointed out an agreeable spot for him to bed down, “but please don’t burn the place down. That would not do.” “I’ll be careful,” he said as she left.
He saw that his horse was comfortable and he bedded down across from the mule that seemed to be pacing in its own stall. “Stop,” Counsel said to the mule once he was settled. “Just stop that.” The mule paused, seemed to consider what the man had said and then went back to pacing around. Counsel turned over on his side and pulled the blanket up to his ear. He was well into his sleep when he felt something touch his shoulder. He thought at first that the mule had wandered over and was nuzzling him, but the touching became more insistent and he reached for his pistol. He turned and cocked the gun. “Oh,” Meg said and fell back with the sound of the gun.
“What? What you want?” Counsel said. He tried to make out her face in the dark, tried to remember what little of it he had seen during the evening, but all he could pull forward was the face of a woman in Alabama who passed him in her wagon with her belongings and her family.
Back on her knees, Meg raised the blanket and came in with him and began kissing his face. She pulled up her dress and put his hand between her legs. He wondered if the boy had come out of her. Finally, he laid her down and they continued kissing and he could hear the mule still pacing. His horse was silent. The woman pulled him on top of her and opened her legs wider, never once taking her lips from his. He was surprised to be inside her, as if all the touching and the kissing were not supposed to lead to that but to something quite innocent, something they could do at the table in front of the boy. In all the time she was there, the “Oh” was the only thing she said.
In the morning he lay awake for some time to get himself together. He heard the mule peeing in its stall. He knew right away that Meg coming to him was not a dream. That had sometimes been his problem with events since leaving North Carolina, the sense upon awaking that where he was was no more than a dream, that North Carolina was the real and nothing after that could be trusted. He looked over at his horse. It was staring out the broken barn door. If he lay for a while, Counsel had discovered, the world would right itself and he would know where he was and that it was North Carolina that couldn’t be trusted.
As he came out of the barn, he looked at the side of the house and discerned that the dimensions were far smaller than the actual inside of the house. What he saw outside-the wall of no more than twenty feet-could not possibly hold all that he had seen inside last night. And the front of the house was no more than fifteen feet. The inside last night was easily seventy-five feet by fifty feet. Counsel thought he should go back to the barn and try to start the day all over again, but the thought of the boy made him want to get away.
He stood at the door to the house before knocking. He counted on the woman to keep their business to the two of them. She seemed the kind to know how to do that. He was still standing when the door opened and one of the little girls told him good morning. He said good morning and she said there was a little something to eat at the table.
Inside he saw the same seventy-five feet by fifty feet of the night before. The two Hirams were eating at the table and Meg stood behind the man. “Have a bit to chew,” the father said and pointed at a pan across from him. Counsel took the same seat as the evening before. There was a lump of scrambled eggs and a slab of hard-cooked bacon sharing the pan with two large biscuits. Counsel sat and only then saw the gun beside the man’s pan. It was about equal distance between the man’s pan and the boy’s pan, so it was difficult to tell who the gun belonged to. But to make it plain, the man put the gun in his lap and sucked once on his teeth.
“Sleep well?” the boy asked Counsel.
“It was better than most places,” he said. “And I thank you for it.” He had left his own gun out with the horse in the barn, and though he had walked in hungry, the food before him began to turn his stomach. He wondered: Does a bullet in the gut hurt more when the bullet doesn’t have to mix it up with eggs and bacon and biscuits? Does it take longer to die on an empty stomach?
He had a good look at the woman. A dark blue knot sat right next to her left eye.
“We ain’t got hotel fixins,” the boy said.
“What he means is we aim to do right by strangers.”
“I know what I mean, Pa. He know what I mean. I’m speakin Jesus’ English.”
The father continued, “You never know when a stranger is an angel, come to test which side of right and wrong you standin on. God still does that to people, no matter what some men, even preachers, might claim. He still sends out angels to test us. I don’t want to fail.”
“No,” Counsel said. “I wouldn’t want to fail either.”
The father took up the gun and pointed at the food in front of Counsel. “Eat, eat,” he said. “My wife slaved all mornin over that.” He sat the gun beside his pan, much farther away this time from the boy’s pan.
“I’m not all that hungry this morning,” Counsel said. “Truth is, I just come in to say my good-byes.”
“Oh, go on. Eat. I’m sure you hungry anough. Angel work must be hard work, I would think. Angels do all that hard work for God and the least we could do is feed em as we can.” He had picked up the gun and said the last words tapping himself in the chest with the barrel. “I know I would be hungry if I was doin all that work.”
“Listen,” Counsel began.
“You sayin my wife’s cookin ain’t good anough for one a God’s angels?”
“Thas exactly what I heard,” the boy said. “You buckety-buck up here, sleep in our place and then turn your back on my ma’s food. And you, Pa, I don’t know why you call him some kinda angel.”
Counsel said, “I just come in to thank you and say I have to be going. That’s all I want to do.” He stood up slowly and looked from the man to the woman, who did not appear unhappy at all, despite the bump on her face. “I just wanna get on my way, that’s all I want.” The chair, with the one bad leg, tipped over, and Counsel cursed it in his mind. “I just wanna be going.” He stepped away, heading for the door, never turning his back on the man. The boy drank from a cup on the other side of his pan. It was milk and Counsel saw the white along the boy’s upper lip. Where had they kept the cow all this time? he thought, taking more and more backward steps to the door. Where had the cow been? Where was the cow now? And the chickens for the eggs, where were the chickens? The pig for the bacon. “I just wanna leave in peace.”
The man stood, without hurrying, as if Counsel was the last thing on his mind. “We’ll be sorry to see you go, angel. But when you have to be about God’s work, you have to be about God’s work.”
The boy said, “I should charge you for all you got. I should take every penny you owe. And then take your hide besides.” He reached for the gun but the man turned away. “Don’t you make me mad,” he said to his father. “You know what happens when you make me mad.”
Counsel opened the door and stepped out. Had she told the man and then enjoyed with her husband Counsel’s discomfort, fear?
He got to the barn and saddled the horse and when he came out, the boy was on the porch, legs apart, both hands just inside the top of his britches. Counsel mounted and took a slow time leaving because he knew speed was one more thing in the world the boy didn’t like.
He took all that day to cross into Texas. He no longer knew about California. There was so much of civilization in the east, near the Atlantic Ocean, so much certainty. Here, away from what he always knew, was a world he did not believe he could ever make peace with. He rode on and avoided towns, farms, any signs of people.
Three days after Louisiana, a forest appeared out of nowhere along about Georgetown, Texas, and he was happy to see it after so much flat sameness. Long before he reached the forest, he heard the thunder along the ground but he thought it some weather phenomenon-the sky sending a message down to the ground about the storm that was coming. In North Carolina he had once stood on his verandah as it rained, only to go down the steps and off a few yards to a spot where it wasn’t raining. And many times there had been thunder and lightning while the snow fell. So he was used to the tricks of the weather. The trees of the forest seemed thick enough to provide a little shelter for him and the horse during the storm. The thunder on the ground grew louder as he approached the forest.
He was less than fifteen yards from the edge of the forest when the dogs emerged from the trees, walking slowly, but moving with some purpose. It was a grand and strangely disciplined passel of mongrels. He couldn’t see anything pure in the bunch, about twenty-five dogs in all. He was too near to them to run; it would not take them long to overtake him and the horse. First one dog noticed him, one in the middle of the pack, and then one at the edge of the group, and then all the rest took casual notice. When they had all cleared the forest, they sat down as one on their haunches. At some safe distance, he thought, he could have admired the wonder of them, the variety of colors and sizes, and the sense that they were sharing the same mind. They had stopped but the thunder on the ground went on. He eased his gun out of the holster and held it along with the reins. Perhaps just the sight of one or two of them dying would scare off the rest.
Something told him it would be best to continue on; perhaps they would credit him and the horse with some courage for not running away. He thought it odd that the horse had not shown one bit of hesitation or fear. He moved slowly into the pack and the dogs, row after row, rose and moved out of the way and then sat down after he had passed. He was well into the forest when the thunder grew louder, and he figured it was because the sounds were trapped under the canopy of trees. Then, as if they had been invisible and chose just that moment to reappear, there were ten men and women on horses facing him, and Counsel could see beyond them even more people and horses as well as six or seven wagons, all coming with ease through the forest the way they would go along a well-kept road. As he looked from face to face to face, the crowd of humans and horses slowed and stopped. His hand shook and the gun fell almost soundlessly to the forest floor. A black man, not three feet from Counsel, rode closer and leaned far down and swept up the gun and handed it to Counsel along with some of the wood sorrel the gun had fallen into.
The black man, on his right side, began speaking a foreign language and pointed to Counsel’s coat pocket and his saddlebags. Counsel could make out a few English words but everything together made no sense to him. Counsel shook the sorrel from the gun and rested it over the pommel. The black man kept on talking, and his talking, just above a whisper, was very loud in the forest, even with all the people and the animals. All the people and the horses seemed to have quieted just to listen to what he had to say. The man reached over and shook the hem of Counsel’s coat and seemed disappointed that he didn’t hear what he expected. Counsel used his gun to brush the man’s hand away. A woman Counsel thought was Mexican rode up on a blond horse and stopped next to the black man and nodded to Counsel. He thought Mexican because she looked like a painting in one of his books back in his library in North Carolina.
“What that nigger saying?” Counsel said. “What’s he talking?” He spoke to the woman but also directed his questions to a white man he noticed just behind the black man and to another white man who appeared on his left side. “What this nigger want from me?” he asked the white man on the left. “What’s he talking?”
“He’s talking American talk,” the Mexican woman said, her face unsmiling as if to convey the seriousness of what the black man was saying.
He knew she was lying and he wanted her now to just go away.
“He is asking if you have any tobacco,” the white man on the left said. “I take it you are not American or you would understand him.” The man raised his hat by the crown and then let it drop back down on his head. “He’s hard of hearing or he would start to discuss your calling him out of his name. His discussions can be painful, or so I’m told.”
“Tell him I ain’t got nothing for him.” The black man shrugged, apparently because he understood what Counsel had said. He began riding past Counsel and then stopped and picked the last piece of wood sorrel from Counsel’s gun. Would they all hang him from one of the trees if he up and shot the nigger right there? “Need a clean shooter,” the black man said in the same clear way he had spoken all the other words. He went on by.
The white man on the left sounded to Counsel like someone who had some sense, despite the foolishness that had come out of his mouth. “I just wanna be on my way.” Had he said that only an hour ago? A few days ago? Or was it the remnant of a conversation from a dream?
“We hold nobody back,” the Mexican woman said and followed the black man.
“Not on purpose anyway,” the white man behind her said.
Counsel started forward and people and their horses made way. He had underestimated the amount of people by half and as he moved on, he thought their numbers, with their horses and wagons, would never end. He turned around at one point and looked in the back of one wagon and saw two pregnant women, one white, one black, sitting up and staring at him. The black woman waved at him, but the white woman had a pout on her face; she had on a light green bonnet and one of the strings was in her mouth. He had seen a dark old man driving the wagon, not really a Negro, not really from any race that was recorded in any of the books in his destroyed library. As he looked between the pregnant women he saw a tiny blond-haired boy standing with his arms around the dark man’s neck, hanging on for support. The boy turned and looked at him. Counsel wondered if the authorities knew about all these people. There was something wrong here and the government of Texas should be doing something about it.
When he turned from the wagon with the pregnant women, a boy smiling with perfect teeth was facing him. He knew the origins of this one from another of the destroyed books-someone from the Orient. It might be China, if the book had been telling him the truth. The boy was no more than fifteen, and his long and thick pigtail lay over his left shoulder with the ease of a coveted pet. The boy was in his way and Counsel stopped. The boy, his hand out, shifted slightly to the right side and Counsel continued, and as he passed, the boy’s hand, never threatening, never harsh, paused at the ear of Counsel’s horse and moved down the horse’s neck, along Counsel’s saddle and thigh and on out past the horse’s rump, finally taking a gentle hold of the tail before letting horse and man go on. The boy had never stopped smiling, and the smile, more than the touch, was chilling to Counsel.
The people of one color or another and their horses flowed on past him, the ground thundering and the dappled sun coming down on them all. In the end, it did not seem that he and his horse were moving but were simply being carried forward by some counterforce the horses and wagons and people were creating as they went past him. He was in a river of them and he had no say in it. He closed his eyes.
“Better open your eyes or you’ll fall off Texas.” Counsel opened his eyes and saw a red-haired white woman looking at him. Beyond her he could see what he thought was the end of it all.
“I remember when you did that and fell off into Mississippi from Alabama.” A blond-haired man appeared beside her. The hair seemed similar to that of the boy holding the nigger in the wagon, and Counsel, trying to make some sense of everything, thought the man might be father to that boy. The man and the woman were on black horses, though the woman’s horse seemed to be turning blue as seconds went by.
“I did not,” the woman said and gave a kick to the man’s leg. “That was Jenny and her one eye.” They were now in Counsel’s way and he stopped again.
“You going farther into Texas?” the man asked Counsel.
“I have that plan.” He felt that everything behind him, horses and people and wagons, had now stopped as if what he and the white woman and man were saying was more important than wherever they were going.
“Hmm,” the woman said, “I’ve seen the rest of Texas and now I’ve seen you, and I don’t think the two of you would marry well.” Where was the law in Texas with all these people going about?
“You could join us,” the white man said. Yes, Counsel decided, the little boy was his son. “We’ve seen Texas and we could tell what all you are missing. The rivers, the land, the dust. Before we’re done telling you, you’ll think you’ve been to every part of Texas.”
“We’re as good as picture books,” the woman said.
“The only thing we ask is that you not hurt children,” the man said.
“That’s a hard one,” the woman said, kicking the man again.
“I learned it. He can learn it.”
“I want to see for myself,” Counsel said and started up his horse again.
“You learned it after you learned not to lie anymore,” the woman said and reached over and rubbed the back of her hand along the blond man’s beard. He closed his eyes and smiled, and had he been a cat, he would have curled up and purred.
“No,” the man said, opening his eyes, “that was Jenny that had the lying problem. Lying problem along with falling into Mississippi.”
Counsel turned his horse to the right. “Texas,” he said.
“Suit yourself,” the man said.
“Suit everybody,” the woman said, and as soon as she did the thunder of movement began and the white man and white woman parted and Counsel went between them. “Just don’t lie and hurt the children. Jenny learned the hard way.”
Counsel could see full sunlight for the first time since he had entered the forest, but after a few yards, he felt thunder coming from ahead and dozens of horses appeared. No people, just horses who seemed to be following all the people with the obedience of the dogs at the beginning of the forest. He went into the mix and closed his eyes. There was a sweet musty smell to all the horseflesh, and on another day, somewhere else, he could have enjoyed the wonder of them. A man behind him began to whistle. Maybe, Counsel thought, Texas was being emptied out of filth and it was now a better place for a man like him.
In five minutes or so, he was clear of everything and the land and the air belonged to him alone. But he could still hear the thundering and it stayed with him even as he put more distance between him and the pack. At a creek he stopped and he and the horse drank, and even after he had put his whole head in the water, the thundering remained. He and the horse walked across the creek, and on the other side he mounted, and they were fine for more than two miles. Then a thicket of vegetation came up. He dismounted and at first it went easy with just a few cuts here and there with his knife. He thought at any moment they would have a clearing again. But the vegetation continued and so did the thundering in his head. Counsel looked to the left and the right, hoping for a way to avoid the growth but there were just long lines of green that he felt would take days to pass. The horse began to balk. Counsel pulled on it and cut at the green with his knife.
“Come on,” he told the horse, wondering if it might be sensing some snake lurking in the growth. “Come on.” He released his reins and went ahead to cut a path. He returned for the horse and it seemed to be satisfied but as he moved on, still holding the reins and still cutting, the horse balked again. “I said come. I want you to come.”
The horse began pulling him back. Counsel stopped, sweating, head full of thunder, chest heaving, and he looked the horse in the eyes. “Come,” he said in as calm a voice as he could manage. “Come.” He pulled out his pistol. “When I tell you to come, don’t you think I mean it?” The horse did not move. “Come,” he said, again calmly. He raised the pistol and shot the horse between the eyes. The horse sank on two knees and moaned and Counsel fired once more and the horse collapsed. Its breathing was heavy and he prepared to fire again but soon the breathing stopped. “Why is coming so hard?” he said to the horse.
In one of the destroyed books back home there had been a man in a dark place who commanded the power of a magic carpet. Counsel had sat one of his daughters on his knee and read stories to her. How easy it had all been for the man and his carpet.
He holstered his gun and all the thundering stopped for the first time since the entrance to the forest. A few flies appeared immediately above the horse. “What is it that you want of me?” Counsel asked God. He sat down, less than four feet from the horse, and more flies, bigger than any he had known in North Carolina, came to the horse in a black cloud. He took off his hat and tried to wave them away, but more came as if the waving had been a signal for them to come. “What do you want me to do?” he asked God. “Tell me what it is.” He looked up and was surprised that the buzzards were circling so soon. He shot at one but missed and no sooner had the sound of the shot gone away than the buzzards began to land. Maybe it was not Texas where he should be; maybe it was still full of niggers and people no one could identify because they weren’t in books, and still full of white women gone bad and white men letting them go bad. “You tell me what to do and I will do it,” he said to God. “Isn’t that how it has always worked? You say, I do. You say and I do.” He thought of the men in the large family Bible in the destroyed library who talked the way he was talking now. Sometimes God heard and acted, took pity on his creations, and sometimes he heard and ignored the creations talking to him. His daughters had liked the stories in the Bible, the Bible with their names and the days of their births written large and in ink the general store man had said would last for generations. “First,” the man said, “the ink will note your children’s birthdays, and then it will note their marriage days. The ink will outlast you, Mr. Skiffington.” Counsel went on talking to God, and the buzzards came down and joined the flies, all of them feasting on the horse and ignoring the man who still had some life in him.