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8 Namesakes. Scheherazade. Waiting for the End of the World.

From the day Fern Elston arrived when Henry Townsend died to the day she closed down her extended stay with Caldonia was a little more than five weeks, though she had returned home for periods of no more than a day or two. She lived some eight miles from Caldonia. Fern, like Maude, Caldonia’s mother, and her brother Calvin, thought she could be of greater comfort and use to Caldonia if she were with her under the same roof, day by day. Fern knew how death and the mourning that followed could set a life adrift and how important it was for family and friends to guide a soul back to shore, back home. At the beginning of the fourth week, Fern could see that Caldonia had stood up in her boat, had placed her hand on the captain’s shoulder to steady him and reassure all on board and was making up her mind about where it would be best to come ashore. “She had come from good people so I never feared for her,” Fern told Frazier Anderson, the Canadian pamphlet writer that August day in 1881. “And you had been her teacher,” Anderson added. She responded, ignoring the compliment, “I have been given credit when I should not have. And there have been times when I was denied the credit due me. But that is the fate of many a teacher, the good and the bad.”

Maude was the first to return home. She might have stayed on longer but she knew that all the talk of legacy would have hardened Caldonia against what she was saying. And Maude was anxious to get back to her lover, the one she had taken after her husband’s murder. That lover, Clarke, a slave, had been left in charge of her place, and she trusted him perhaps as much as she trusted her own children. Clarke had taught himself to read and write, and Maude’s trust flowed from the fact that he had, only weeks before the death of her husband, Tilmon Newman, come and told her what he was now able to do. She had not been left to find out on her own, to come upon him unexpectedly with his head in a book and Clarke hurriedly trying to explain it away by turning the book upside down and pretending he did not really know what he was doing. That had happened to a white couple, acquaintances of Maude’s in Amelia County. It had frightened the white woman, seeing the incongruity of a nigger with a book, she told Maude after the slave, Victoria, had been whipped and told to forget what she knew. It frightened her more than walking into the barn and seeing a mule singing hymns or speaking the Lord’s words, the woman told Maude.

“Do you know,” Maude had said the first time she and Clarke had lain together, “that if I was a white woman, they would come in here and tear you from limb to limb?” “And what they gon do with you being colored?” he asked. Maude, delighted that she had taken such a step in her life, lay back, the sweat over her body still drying. “I suspect that since I own you, since I have the papers on you, they might do the same thing if I up and screamed. They wouldn’t be as fast, I suppose, but they would come, Clarke.” He said nothing.

Calvin followed his mother two days later, though he had very little to get back to. The place Maude owned had grown smaller and smaller over time as she rented portions of her land. She also rented out many of her slaves; each leased slave could bring in as much as $25 a year, and the renter was responsible for meals and upkeep while renting the slave, so just about all of the $25 was profit. Calvin was not an idle man, and he would work in the fields that remained alongside his mother’s servants. But the toiling, even before Henry Townsend died, did not fulfill him as it had once. And when he returned home after Henry’s death, he picked himself up and went out into the ever-decreasing fields only because he knew he would waste away otherwise. He would come to blame it all on slavery. Had he and Clara Martin, cousin to Winifred Skiffington, ever spoken, he might have understood her sense of miasma. A pain generated by the very air around him seeped into his bones and settled right next to the pain of silently caring for Louis.

Then Fern left. Her husband was at their place for all the time she had been away, abandoning his gambling sprees for the time being. But she had found, in her brief returns home, that he was becoming increasingly erratic and she could not depend on him to run things the way she knew they had to be run. Hers was not as large an estate as Caldonia’s but, as she had told her students, size did not determine the vulnerability to rot. She had taught that the ruin of an empire could start not with rebellion in the farthest reaches of the empire, but in the attic or bedroom or the kitchen of the emperor’s palace where he had allowed domestic chaos to fester and eventually bring down the palace, and with the palace the empire could follow. Her husband was not a man given to drink all the time, she said to Caldonia once, but he often acted with the irresponsibility of a drunkard. It would have been better if he were a drunkard, she continued, then at least he would have the benefit of the gaiety that came with drink.

Caldonia stood on the verandah and watched Fern go off, Loretta just behind her and to the left. They went inside and Caldonia read for much of the afternoon, then sewed with Loretta. Moses came that evening and told Caldonia about the first nail Henry had driven into a board in the kitchen, when the house was no more than a dream in his head.

The servant driving Fern home that day saw the man first and he told her there was someone up ahead in the road. It was nearing sundown, the sky afire with the red and the orange. The patrollers had already passed them, so Fern was assured that whoever it was was someone who had a legitimate reason to be in the road. “I can’t make it out,” Zeus the servant said to her. “It just a big somethin out there.” “It” was big because the man was sitting on a horse, but with the dying sun behind the man making him a large silhouette, what Zeus could make out was a figure of one piece, not quite man and not quite horse.

”You be Miss Elston?” the man said, taking off his hat when they were near. He was a Negro and Fern could see with the last of the day’s light that he was the color of a dark pecan.

“I be Jebediah Dickinson,” the man said.

“Are you looking for me, Mr. Dickinson?” Fern said.

“I am, ma’am, and yet I ain’t.”

“I am tired, Mr. Dickinson, riddles are not what I want this time of the day.”

“Your husband be owin me $500, and all I want is for him to pay so I can get where I need to be goin.” Ramsey Elston, her husband, had left home the day before, the need to gamble having finally claimed him after so many weeks.

“I assume you have been up to the house and that Mr. Elston is not there. Beyond that, I cannot help you. Pass on,” Fern said to Zeus, and he raised the reins but when the man began to speak, he dropped them again.

“A man would think that the debt of one be the debt of the other when two people are one and the same as man and wife.” The man had not moved. He was more or less catty-corner to the road, though not in any threatening way, and Zeus could have gone through if his mistress had ordered it so. Jebediah’s horse seemed the nervous sort, head forever up and down and tail wagging for all it was worth. The tail had been shortened but only Zeus, who was not around horses very much, noticed that.

“Is that so?” Fern said. Jebediah got down off the horse and came around to her and the horse’s tail stopped wagging and, a few moments later, his head stopping bobbing. “You are quite mistaken, Mr. Dickinson. Whatever Mr. Elston does out in the world is his business. It has nothing to do with me, no more than what you do in the world is my business.” I have been a dutiful wife.

“All I’m sayin, ma’am-”

“I do not care about all that you are saying. His debts are his own. If you are a gambler, and I assume that you are, you would know that.” She wondered when Ramsey had started gambling with black people. She wondered if he still gambled with white people. “Pass on,” she said to Zeus.

He was still there the next day and all the days after that for nearly a week. She came and went-once to Caldonia’s-and he said nothing to her, just raised his hat at her going and raised it again at her coming back. In the night he was still out there, for she could make out a small fire. And there was movement, though that could just as easily have been a bear. The patrollers often came up to him and he pulled out his papers from inside his shirt and they would move on. Fern could see him from her window far up the path. She should not have been able to see him: she had wanted trees planted just before the entrance, trees that would now have been high enough to block him out. But Ramsey had always wanted the view unobstructed.

What he ate Fern did not know, and her slaves could not tell her. Seven days after he was there he knocked at her door. Zeus opened it and told Jebediah his mistress didn’t like folks, slaves and Negro strangers like him, knocking at her front door. “Thas what they made the back door for,” Zeus said. “Then what they make the front door for?” Jebediah asked. Zeus closed the door, gently, as if he didn’t really want to make a fuss. In less than two minutes Fern came to the door, and Zeus, unsmiling, was behind her.

“Miss Elston, my horse be dyin on me, and I don’t own a gun, so I can’t put him outa his misery,” Jebediah said. His hat was in front of his chest and he was holding it with both hands. “If I was strong anough, I could wring her neck, but that would take time and she would suffer and so would I. I have a knife, but thas about the same amount of sufferin for us both.”

“Zeus,” Fern said, “please ask Colley to come here. Tell Colley to bring the rifle and a pistol.” When she married the second and third times, Zeus would be with her. Indeed, as she talked to Anderson Frazier that day in 1881, he was inside the house, occasionally looking through the curtains at the backs of their heads. He brought out lemonade to Anderson after Fern offered him some.

“Yessum,” Zeus said.

“Are you planning to make that place out there your home, Mr. Dickinson?” she asked as they waited.

“Your husband been owin me $500, thas all there is to it.”

She would have sighed but that was not in her nature. Sighing was an indication of surrender, of approaching helplessness. She folded her arms.

Zeus came around the side of the house, carrying a pistol, and he was followed by Colley, a man even larger than Jebediah. Colley had a rifle resting on his shoulder. The three men went out to the horse and after Jebediah said something to Colley, the man handed him the rifle and Jebediah shot the horse twice in the head and then handed the rifle back to Colley. Fern watched from the verandah and she could see how the horse simply disappeared in one, two seconds from her treeless view, leaving not one sign that it had ever been there except for a little bothersome dust. Zeus had just stood with his hands behind his back, the pistol in his left hand. They came back and Jebediah asked Fern for the loan of a shovel to bury the beast, and when he was done with the hole, Colley came out with another man and two mules and the three men and the two mules managed to drag the dead horse over and down into the hole. Dickinson covered the hole up. Zeus did not participate because all the work he ever did was in the house, except for a little puttering in Fern’s garden.

Whenever Fern came out and back after that, she found Jebediah sitting on his saddle when he wasn’t standing. He raised his hat as usual. And in all those days her husband never showed up or sent word about his whereabouts.

Oden Peoples, the Cherokee patroller, got tired of seeing Jebediah out there day in, day out and said so to Sheriff John Skiffington. That was the second week Jebediah was there. “Give him a little more time,” Skiffington said. “I’ll be patient with vagrancy but not till the end of my days.” And so near the end of the second week, in broad open daylight when he wasn’t supposed to be on patrol, Oden rode up to Jebediah and pointed his gun at him. Fern watched them from her window.

Jebediah raised his hands without any trouble. He must have said something about his being a free man because Oden shouted something long and hard at him. Oden was on his horse and he got down, never once taking the gun off Jebediah. He roped Jebediah’s hands and waist, a rope of a good six feet, and then he got back up on his horse and he started riding, one hand holding the reins and the other holding the end of the rope that was chaining the walking Jebediah. He had holstered his gun because he felt he didn’t need it anymore.

Fern came out to the road, with Zeus behind her, and they watched together. They watched them for a long time. It was more than ten miles into town but the woman and her slave couldn’t see that far, only about a mile or more, and then the trees and the hills got in the way. She told Zeus to get someone to bring in Mr. Dickinson’s saddle.

As far as anyone could remember, there had never been a colored man in the Manchester County jail. None of them, free or slave, had ever done anything to warrant a stay. The free men in Manchester knew the tenuousness of their lives and always endeavored to be upstanding; they knew they were slaves with just another title. Most crimes and misdemeanors by slaves were dealt with by their masters; they could even hang a slave if he killed another slave, but that would have been like throwing money down a well after the slave had already thrown the first load of money down, as William Robbins once told Skiffington.

Skiffington was most reluctant to put a Negro in a facility that would one day have to be used again by a white man, a white criminal. He resented Oden for putting him in that predicament. He could have chained Jebediah in Sawyer’s barn out back, but Sawyer wanted an arm and a leg for everything, and Skiffington felt the law shouldn’t have to pay that much. And, besides, the law mandated that the sheriff of a county have some control over a prisoner at all times, which wouldn’t have been the case with Sawyer’s barn. So he put Jebediah in the jail cell and decided that everyone would have to live with it.

Jebediah’s free papers said he had been manumitted by Reverend Wilbur Mann of Danville, Virginia. The papers looked right, but Skiffington telegraphed the sheriff down Danville way that he had a suspect Negro and the sheriff telegraphed back that Jebediah was the property of Mann. “Rev. Coming,” the telegram added. In four days Mann was at the jail. He arrived early one morning before Skiffington had even reached the jail and the sheriff found Mann looking in the window, laughing. The reverend was a tall man, very gaunt, and he had the prettiest long blond hair Skiffington had ever seen on a man.

“He belongs to me,” Mann kept saying once they were inside. He produced a bill of sale that showed Jebediah was bought in Durham sixteen years before for $250.

“How he get that free paper?” Skiffington said.

Mann looked abashed. “He wrote em. He can read and write better than you and me.” Mann took off his nice gray hat and set it with both hands on Skiffington’s desk near the Bible. “That was my wife’s doing, bless her name. I told her not to do something like that, but I could never say no to her. He was just a pup back then. She was sweet except for doing things I didn’t approve of.”

Jebediah, in the cell, was silent.

“You should make your wife stop doin work like that,” Skiffington said. “She should know she shouldn’t be doin that. She know what the law is about teaching slaves to read and write?”

“I know,” Mann said. “But she dead now, been dead for two years, left us not long before this damn Jebediah here took off. Bless her name. I got me a real smart wife now-she can’t read nor write so she can’t teach anybody what she don’t know.” He told Skiffington that Dickinson was his first wife’s maiden name. “Ain’t that a kick in the head for you?” the preacher said.

“I don’t know,” Skiffington responded. “I’ll just accept your word that it is.”

“Well, it is. It’s a big kick in the head,” Mann said.

“If you didn’t free him,” Skiffington said, “how he get that free paper?”

“I told you he can read. He can read and write. Can do it better than I can, can’t you, Jebediah? Can cipher like the dickens, too.” He walked over to the bars. “Damn your soul to hell for causin me all this trouble.” Jebediah still said nothing. “And why you wanna go and despoil my wife’s good memory by usin her name to commit a crime with? Huh? You tell me that? Damn your soul.”

“You can take him home anytime,” Skiffington said.

“Lemme go out and get a little mouthful of somethin to eat. I brought my neighbor and he eatin now. We both can get him back where he belong.”

“Fine, that’s good with me.”

Mann had turned to talk to Skiffington but now he went back to Jebediah. “I’m gonna whip your black hide till God tell me to stop, you hear me?” Jebediah stepped back and sat on the pallet on the floor. The cot for the white prisoners had been removed. “Yessiree, you rest up now cause I’m gon tan you good, boy. And then I’ma let you heal, give you time to grow another hide and then I’ma whip that one off you. Then let you grow another, then whip that one off. Go around despoilin my wife’s good name and committin God knows what crimes. Thas all the work you ever gonna have to do again, Jebediah, just grow hides and watch me whip em off you.” Mann took up his hat and then he leaned his head back a few degrees, patted down the front part of the blond hair and set the hat on his head with the same gentleness he would use to set the hat down in a hatbox. “I’ll be back directly,” he told Skiffington and went out the door.

As it happened, Ramsey Elston had returned home two nights before. He told his wife that he didn’t know any Jebediah Dickinson, and if a Jebediah Dickinson didn’t exist for him, then surely a $500 debt couldn’t exist. Fern knew he was not telling her the truth. God’s gift to Ramsey as he aged was easiness with lies. They were in their eleventh year of marriage. She had not been able to get Jebediah out of her mind since the day Oden rode away with him.

She had intended to go into town to inquire about Jebediah the day after her husband told her he did not know him, but Ramsey rose that first morning and was as sweet as ever. That evening he turned sour and she went to bed determined to go in and inquire about Jebediah. I have been a dutiful wife. She did not know about Mann and she arrived with Colley at the jail just about the time Mann must have been forking in his first mouthful of food at the table with his neighbor.

Skiffington told her the what-all about Jebediah and she sat in her surrey waiting for Mann to finish his meal. When he came back up the street he was followed by a white man just as tall as he was, but the man stayed outside the jail after Mann went in. Mann took off his hat again with both hands and placed it back on Skiffington’s desk beside the Bible. Fern came in.

She told him she wanted to buy Jebediah. Right away he asked, “How much?” When she told him $250, he did a little click with the side of his mouth to indicate he was displeased with the figure. “You cannot say he is very reliable, given his history,” Fern said. “Paid $350 for him when he was a pup,” Mann said. Skiffington had seen the bill of sale for $250 but he didn’t contradict Mann. The only man of God whose word he trusted was his father’s, and his father had been ordained by no human. Fern said $300. Mann walked to the cell where Jebediah was still sitting on the pallet. A sale was certainly going to be made that day and it was plain on Mann’s face. What was also plain was the disappointment that he would not be able to do all he had been planning since he came up from Danville. Perhaps it was just as well, he thought, both hands on the bars of the cell, because just how many beatings could he manage before Jebediah keeled over and died on him. Fern and Mann said nothing for a few minutes, and finally Fern said $375, “a good profit for any man on any day.” Mann agreed.

Mann and the white man he came with escorted Fern and her driver Colley and Jebediah back to her place. Jebediah was roped again and he sat in the front seat beside Colley, who never said a word to him. At Fern’s place, Mann and the white man took Jebediah into the barn and there they chained him to a wall. “If he happens to get up and disappear during the night,” Mann said before he and his companion left, “I am due my money.” “I understand that,” Fern said, “but I anticipate no disappearances.” All this time Mann thought he was dealing with a white woman and he was never to know any different.

She told Colley to make sure Jebediah was comfortable, fed and blanketed, and he was as comfortable as he could be with less freedom to move about than he had in Skiffington’s jail cell. Her husband, who had not been about when she came back with Jebediah, was brought out to the barn the next day and right off Jebediah started ranting and raving.

“Where’s my gotdamn money, Ramsey? You owe me five hundred dollars, and I want every gotdamn penny!” He strained against the chains and kicked straw up at Ramsey. “Let me loose, you hear!” he shouted to Fern.

“I don’t know you and I know nothing about some five hundred dollars,” Ramsey said, his feet apart and ignoring the straw that was settling on his boots. “Why you buy somethin that will give you nothing but trouble?” he said to his wife. Their parents had met and discussed their marriage before the two of them had ever laid eyes on one another. Ramsey had picked at his chicken the evening of their first meeting. She was not impressed with him and would not be for some time.

“Standin there with all the love in you now, huh?” Jebediah said to Ramsey. Colley had gone to Jebediah and whenever he would strain against the chains trying to reach Ramsey, Colley would take hold of the chains and pull him back. “There’s a lot of people in Richmond and places that would be mighty surprised you had a damn wife.” Then to Fern he said, “I didn’t know he had a wife till he woke up screamin with that lovely cross the hall from me one night. Woke me up and woke a lotta other people up, too.” Some straw had settled on Fern’s dress and boots and she now began picking it all off. “I want my damn $500, Ramsey, and I want every penny now.”

Ramsey left the barn. Fern left off picking off straw and stepped closer to Jebediah. “You will stay here until you learn some manners, until you learn you cannot get up and walk about like some free man.”

“I am free,” Jebediah said. “Mann ain’t knowed what he talkin bout. I am free.”

“The law does not say that.” She had intended, only hours before, to free him, allow what she had paid for him to be a trade for what Ramsey owed him. She had expected Jebediah to go for that because he would be, after all, free and clear once and for all. But the knowledge of her husband’s infidelity had come full and heavy and squatted down big in front of her, blocking everything else out. She resented her husband, and she resented the messenger, the companion to her husband. She was thirty-four years old. “This barn has been here many years, and it will stand many more with you in it if you cannot learn manners.”

“Manners ain’t what I need, lady. I need my money.”

Fern said to Colley, “I don’t want him going anywhere until he learns right from wrong, night from day.”

“Yessum,” Colley said and pulled three times on the chain.

“You and your gotdamn no-good husband can go to hell!” Jebediah shouted as she went out. “Y’hear me good. Both a yall can go straight to hell.”

Jebediah stayed there four days and then he told Colley that he was ready to do what she paid for him to do and Colley and another man took Jebediah to the back of the house and Fern came out and down to him.

“I want no trouble. I want not one moment’s trouble,” Fern said.

“All right, all right,” Jebediah said and she slapped him.

“I thought you said he had learned some manners,” Fern said to Colley.

“He told me he had, Mistress. He told me that.” Colley grabbed Jebediah by the neck and forced him to his knees. Ramsey had not gone away to gamble since he had returned while Jebediah was in the jail. He had not been in her bed since his first night back. She had not washed that day he came back; she had washed the night before she went in to buy Jebediah.

“Please tell him to let me up,” Jebediah said. “I’m gonna do right. I told yall that.”

He was a good worker, when he was there to work. For more than two weeks Fern had no trouble from him. Colley, who was as close to an overseer as the Elstons had, kept watch on Jebediah all the day and night long. Fern had alerted Skiffington that he might run, and the sheriff made sure his patrollers didn’t retire for the night without knowing where Jebediah was. Everyone got used to his being a good worker. Then, near the end of the third week of doing what he was told, he would just saunter off. He didn’t make a show of it. He would simply drop whatever they had him doing and walk away and go fishing, or he’d pick blueberries and gorge himself right at the spot where he picked them, or he would find a pasture to nap in, moving the cows away if they were in a spot he relished.

They would drag him back with little fuss, but he would be at it again, maybe not the next day or the day after but pretty soon.

With the fourth week he began going off in the night and returning before morning, seemingly with no trouble from the patrollers. Several slave women in the area knew his name and knew it well; he told one he was a preacher and had been called by God Almighty. For a week he walked by Alice and they would not say a word to each other but each time they waved as though they were passing in the marketplace. Then one night he said hello and she started in on her nonsense and he turned and started walking with her, listening to everything she said. He wanted to know how long she would keep it up and found that she could outlast his walking beside her.

What Fern and Ramsey were to discover was that he had somehow gotten hold of a piece of paper and made himself a pass and had been showing it to patrollers any night they found him on the road. He had been fortunate that he had not run into Oden Peoples. “This nigger,” the paper said, “is on business for his owners, Ramsey and Fern Elston at the Elston Estate. He can be trusted to come back home.” It was signed “Fern Elston,” but it looked nothing like her signature because he had never seen it. The Elstons took that pass away from him, not knowing he had another signed “Ramsey Elston.” On that one he was not just on “business” for the Elstons but “urgent business.”

But the worst of it was that he started calling out whenever he was near the house that he wanted his money. “I ain’t forget yall got my money. I ain’t forgot what yall owe me. I want my five hundred dollars.” In the night, before they took his passes away, he would say it. He said it on the way to the blueberries and he said it on the way to a nap. “I ain’t forgot yall got my money.” Ramsey came out one morning and shot his pistol over Jebediah’s head, but that didn’t stop him.

Then, three days after Ramsey returned to gambling, Fern came out and told him she wanted him to turn over a new leaf. She had Colley and two other men grab hold of Jebediah in front of the cabin he shared with one other unattached man. “This will all end today,” Fern said. “I have been patient, but my patience is at an end. If you do not do right, I will have you in chains again.”

Jebediah said, as she walked away, “If you was my woman you wouldn’t be sleepin in that bed alone every night.” She stopped but she didn’t turn around. “Do you know how long it would take me to undo your hair and get them things off you? You know how long?” He must have known, with that heart and mind born in slavery, that he had gone way too far and he bowed his head. Without a word from Fern, the men released him and Jebediah took off his shirt and lay on his stomach on the ground. Fern never like to flog slaves; for every whip mark on one slave’s back, she estimated that his value came down $5. But there were some unforgivable matters in the world.

They whipped him fifteen times, the last five having little effect because he had passed out at ten. He took a week to recover, was silent as he went about his work. And he didn’t stray. A week after he went back to work he stepped on a plank with a rusty nail in the barn. He thought nothing of it at first, just doctored the wound with a little mud and some spiderwebs. But the wound festered, and in the end, they had to saw off Jebediah’s right foot to save his life, or so the white doctor said.

He didn’t move from the front of his cabin after that, except to go to the privy or to go in to eat and sleep. A little less than two weeks after they cut off his foot Fern came down and told him she would set him free. He said nothing, just went on listening to his phantom foot talking loud to him.

He came up with Colley to the house the next day, up and into the kitchen. He was on the crutches someone had fashioned for him. Fern was at the table, writing. When she was done, she blotted the paper and handed it to him. He read it and handed it back to her. “Ain’t but one ‘T’ in manumit,” he told her, “cept when you usin the pas tense.” She had never written the word before. She wrote the paper again, then wrote another. Men were notorious for losing things. With all the human beings she would ever know in her life, he would be the only one she would come close to saying “I am sorry” to. She told none of this to Anderson Frazier, the pamphlet writer.

She offered him a place and a job on the estate, but he told her he had come to see Virginia as a demon state and he wanted no part of it. “If there was ocean water right out there,” he said, “I’d jump in and swim all the way up to Baltimore just so I wouldn’t have to walk on damn Virginia land.”

She gave him a wagon and an old horse to travel on. And she gave him $50. “You and your no-good husband owe me $450 more and there ain’t no way round it. I give yall the work I done and my foot for free.”

He left, him and the wagon and the horse with all its years behind it. He met a lot of kindness on his way north because he had only that one foot, but no matter how many warm beds and full plates black and white people gave him and no matter how well they treated his horse, he never stopped thinking that he was moving through a demon state. He came to Washington, D.C., and settled for it, though it was Baltimore that he had had his heart set on. Fern’s horse died six months after Jebediah hit Washington. He never bothered to go the forty miles to Baltimore to see if it was all he had dreamed. He named his first child, his only daughter, Maribelle, the name of the horse he had to shoot outside of Fern’s place with Fern’s rifle. He named his second child Jim, after the horse that had brought him to Washington. He caught his son one day writing “James” on his lessons and he told the boy without raising his voice that if he had wanted to name him James, that was what he would have done.

Caldonia and Moses had developed a routine with his coming to the house most of the working days and telling her what had gone on. There was rarely any real news but he related what he did say in some detail-how many shingles to repair the barn, the yields Caldonia might expect for each crop, what was fed to the slaves for dinner and supper, the number of pails of milk from each cow, how long it took to put up a new corncrib to replace the one a sleepwalking mule destroyed. Ultimately, the important thing was that the crops were rising well and that could have taken less than five minutes, but near the end of the recitation he added small bits about the lives of the slaves. One evening in early September, about the time Augustus Townsend was kidnapped and sold, Moses stood in the parlor, his hat in both hands. He had sweated much of the day and had waited in the back until he knew he was nice and dry. She told him to sit, and, as always, he hesitated since he was wearing what he wore in the fields. But he sat and at the end of the story of the workday he mentioned to Caldonia that Celeste’s pregnancy was coming along fine and that Gloria had a lye burn and the left side of Radford’s face was three times its normal size, toothache maybe, as Radford was known to chew on anything short of an anvil.

He was ready to go into another fanciful tale about Henry when Loretta came into the room and asked Caldonia if there was anything she could bring her and Caldonia said a tea biscuit and half a cup of coffee, more water than coffee, she added. Caldonia told her to bring Moses a biscuit.

There was a problem with someone stealing food from one or two cabins, Moses continued, but he had an idea who it was. “I gotta it in mind,” he said, “that it might be some child. Twas mostly molasses that was taken.” Caldonia had her head back and her eyes closed, which had been her way since the second evening. He had begun to feel that he could say anything and it would not matter.

“Do you know exactly who it might be?”

“I got my eye on Selma and Prince’s little fella, Patrick. He could be in with Grant, Elias and Celeste’s boy. Or Grant and Boyd. Every since that dream conniption, they been thick as fleas, sees one you see the other.”

“The dream?” Loretta handed him two biscuits but he did not eat.

He told her about the boys sharing dreams and how they had grown close as a result. Celeste said the dreams were expected to end with the coming of fall, but Moses did not believe that was true. “They’s badder than regular for little boys. They got the devil in em and he ain’t gonna come out cause the season done changed.”

“Do you think they are hungry?” Caldonia asked. “Could that be why they are stealing?” She was at the end of the settee again, dressed in black.

“Hungry?” For the most part, Henry had always allotted what he thought were enough provisions on Saturdays to each slave, including a pint of blackstrap molasses. Those provisions would decrease or increase according to his profit for a particular year; the pint of molasses had never changed and he believed it was enough for each slave, except for slaves with children. “Nome, I wouldn’t say they be hungry. Marse Henry wouldn’t let no slave be hungry if he could help it.”

“I know he wouldn’t,” Caldonia said. She drank from her cup and then settled it with great care in her lap. His hand with the biscuits began to sweat and he put them in the other hand. He was not looking directly at her, but at a spot at the center of the settee.

“I know your boy Jamie is a large size, do you think he could be the culprit?” She gave a laugh to ease him in case he was hurt by her accusation.

“My boy? Jamie? Thievin? Well, he likes to eat and I can’t say he don’t, but he know I’d skin him alive if I caught him touchin what ain’t hisn.” With each word he had been taking his eyes from the spot at the center of the settee and moving toward her. He remembered the first time he saw her-a woman too thin to make any man a good wife.

“I see. It might be a good idea to increase the portion of molasses to a pint and a half,” she said.

“Yessum, I’ll start it this Saturday.”

“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She opened her eyes and raised up.

Moses stood and said, “Good night, Missus.”

He washed before he came the next evening, stood at the well and poured water over himself and scrubbed with his hands as Priscilla his wife watched, laughed. “Just gonna get all that dirt all over you again tomorrow.”

“You just hush up,” Moses said. He dried himself with the shirt he had worn into the field and put it back on.

“Can’t go up to the house and let Loretta see how you been slavin in that field all day.” Because Moses was not a good husband to her or much of a father to their child, Priscilla thought it not at all impossible that Loretta might be why he was going to the house so much. He was an overseer, after all, and though he was a field hand, he was a man of some power and any woman, even a woman of the house, might find it tempting to sway her hips in his direction. “No, we can’t let Loretta see what we really is, day in, day out. Gotta clean some a that stink off first.”

He slapped her. It was not a hard hit but she went to her knees nevertheless because the slap came with years of abuse and rejection. “Why you gotta treat me this way, Moses? Why you can’t do right by me?”

“I do all the right I can do,” he said.

Tessie, Celeste and Elias’s girl, came by, leading Alice down to her cabin. “Little Marse be slappin. Little Marse be slappin. Little Marse got the slappin disease,” Alice chanted.

“Why you cryin?” Tessie said.

“You just get on,” Moses said to them. And to Priscilla, “You get on to that cabin.”

She picked herself up and went down to the cabin. There were no secrets among the cabins and, much later, when the sheriff came to inquire about the disappearances, he would hear of how Moses would beat Priscilla. “We could all hear it,” the children told Skiffington, though the adults said little to the white man. “It wasn’t every night, but it was near bout every night. He would hit her and the walls they be shakin. Like this-boom boom boom.” Priscilla reached her cabin and touched the door lightly and it opened to her, and the hearth fire her son had made for them lit her up and she went in and closed the door behind her. “And did he ever hurt that boy of his?” Skiffington would ask the children later. “Did he ever do harm to that Alice?” “He did it to everybody,” Tessie would say, a statement confirmed by every child who could talk.

“Moses,” Caldonia said after he had told her about the day, “how long did it take you and Henry to build this house?”

“How long, Missus?”

“Yes, how long? Weeks? Months?”

“I’d say maybe four months, every day workin. Yessum, many’s the day we’d be workin away and he’d say, ‘Moses, you think Miss Caldonia gon like this here room? You think her heart will be happy when she gets a look at this?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, Marse Henry, she gon like this.’ ” Her head was leaning back again and if she remembered that the house had been completed long before Henry met her, she said nothing. “I see,” she said after a time.

“Now I wants to say that there were some rooms that he wouldn’t let me work on with him. There were rooms that he wanted to do all by hisself.”


“This room, Missus. The parlor. He knowed there’d be days and days he’d want to be here alone with you, and I don’t guess he wanted me to have a hand in it. And… and the sleepin room upstairs. He wanted that one to hisself. Thas just the way he was, Missus.”

She could see the man she still loved working away. What had she been doing those days Henry was working here, when they did not yet know about one another? Had she been daydreaming about someone else, been planning the future with some other man she had passed on the road?

She dismissed him after nearly an hour and a half, their longest time together. Loretta was sitting in the hall when he left. Loretta rose from her chair and she and Moses did not speak and Loretta knocked at the slightly opened door to the parlor and he went down the hall toward the kitchen. He did not linger but he walked slower than he had usually done. In the kitchen he lied and told Bennett, Zeddie the cook’s husband, that the missus wanted him to have another shirt and pair of britches. Had it been anyone else, a slave who was not the overseer and who had not been talking for many nights with their mistress, Bennett would have been suspicious. Bennett said he would have the clothes for him the next morning.

Moses found Elias on the stump, whittling a bird for his youngest child, Ellwood.

“We gotta meet that mule tomorrow mornin,” Moses said. She had to have some man so why not him. “You best get some sleep.” Dare he raise his eyes that high? Dare he, dare he? “I don’t wanna have to come out here and tell you again.”

Elias did not move. Moses, just before he opened his cabin door, said again, “We gotta meet that mule tomorrow mornin. You want me to tell her we got somebody down here who don’t do what I tell him?”

Elias stood up and took the lamp inside with him. He carried it as carefully as he carried the bird and the carving knife. He had borrowed the lamp from Clement, who owned it together with Delphie and Cassandra. The lane was then dark and quiet and Moses stepped into his cabin. Priscilla had made him supper but he did not want it. There was the last traces of the hearth fire and he sat at the side of their pallet and ate the tea biscuits. His wife and his son watched him. An hour after he went inside Alice wandered out, sniffed at each cabin door and went on her way. Her voice was hoarse from all the talk of the day but she chanted anyway. There were angels by the hundreds waiting for her songs.

Later, after the disappearances, Skiffington would question Elias the longest, and Elias, of all the adults, would hold nothing back. Celeste said the least. “I know nothin bout Moses and any of them,” she said to Skiffington. “Don’t say things to him, Elias,” Celeste would say after Skiffington came to the lane the second time. “Please, don’t, husband.” “I got to,” Elias said. They would be on their pallet, their children sleeping all around them. It would be cold outside that night and the fire in the hearth was going strong. “It’s in my heart and I can’t keep it there. Not for nobody can I keep it there.” “Please, Elias…”

One day after Bennett gave him new pants and a shirt, Moses returned to the woods to be with himself for the first time since his master died. When it was done, he lay and watched the stars twinkling between the swaying leaves of the trees around him. The world was in the last days of summer and it gave off a fecundity that was pulling him into sleep. It was a moment of such peace that he said, in a whisper, that if he were to die now, he would not hate God for it. He was ready to get up and dress when he heard a twig break, and he knew right away that it was not an animal making its way, oblivious to him and what he was doing. He raised up on one elbow and waited. He was all too aware now that he was naked and he held his pants about his midsection. The weight of a human being released the broken twig and Moses heard the stick give out an almost imperceptible sigh. “Who out there?” he asked. “Priscilla? That you?”

He stood and dressed, and as he did he felt the person moving away. He went in the direction of the movement, then he ran. When he was out of the woods, he was alone and there was nothing but the crops and the crickets telling him things he did not want to hear.

When he reached the lane, he found Alice in the middle of the path, on her knees and praying. He said, “Get on home, you.” She did not acknowledge him. “Get home if you know whas good for you.” He came up behind her and toed her left thigh. “You hear me, girl?” Whatever she was saying he could not understand, for it was more gibberish than usual. “You get home or I’ll put the strap to you.” He went on by and when he was at his door, he looked back and saw her standing. She turned fully around once and stopped, and he knew that it had been her in the woods. She came toward him and walked by, disappeared into the area that would take her out to the road. He heard her clearly now:

I met a dead man layin in Massa lane

Ask that dead man what his name

He raised he bony head and took off his hat

He told me this, he told me that.

It came into his head to go after her and strike her down, but when he got to the clearing beyond the cabins she was gone. He still heard the chanting but the more he stood there, the less certain he was about what he was hearing-her actual chanting or the memory of her chanting. And the sound of her voice seemed to come from everywhere.

He followed her the next night, resisted the need to go back to the woods and hid behind the barn until he saw her leave her cabin. Within minutes of her getting to the road, she had disappeared. He went down the way he thought she had gone, and in several more minutes, it occurred to him that he was farther from the Townsend plantation than he had been in many years. He knew everything about the plantation but what was just beyond Caldonia’s boundaries was alien to him. Moses looked about at the unfamiliarity and said quietly, “Alice? You there?” He called loudly. “Alice, you come here so I can see you. Come out here now, girl.” The sound of galloping horses came from up ahead and he ran back toward the plantation, but he felt the horses coming closer and dove into a stand of bushes beside the road. The thick summer dust they riled covered him and the bushes and he felt himself choking. He buried his mouth in the bushes and bit down into thorny leaves, afraid that even with the noise of their galloping, the white men on the horses would hear him coughing dust. His mouth bled. The horses and their men passed, but when he had coughed out the dust and blood and got to the road again, he was not as sure which way was the plantation. He was at a crossroads of sorts and he shivered to know he had put himself there, that he had followed a woman whose neck should have been wrung long ago. He turned about. One road looked to be the correct one but when he looked at the other three, they seemed right as well. The stars and the moon were as bright as the night before but, as Elias was to say to Skiffington, he was “world stupid,” and so the heavens meant nothing to him. “Sweet Jesus,” he said, walking in the direction the horses had gone. But that direction produced a small stand of trees that he had not passed earlier. “Sweet Jesus.”

He stood, trying to clear his head and spitting out blood. The sound of the horses and their patrollers was now a soft rumble along the ground. “Alice, come out here, I say.” He heard a twig break along one road, a sound almost identical to that of the night before, and he went down that road.

He got to the plantation a half hour later, his mouth swelling from the bites of the thorns. At Alice’s cabin he put both hands on the door, ready to push it in, and he knew immediately that she was inside, asleep or well on her way. He stepped back, out into the lane, and looked around. If her, then why not others who might have seen him in the woods? What would they think and what would they tell the mistress? Moses be alone out there in them woods, playin with hisself. No woman, no nothin, just hisself and hisself alone. They be talkin bout Alice, Missus, but Moses the one you gotta worry bout. Moses went toward his cabin. There were no windows on any cabin, for Henry would not have paid for the glass, but he felt their eyes watching him through the doors, through the walls. I see Moses walkin down the lane. I see Moses walkin down the lane. I see Moses layin in that lane. By the time he reached his own door, he could barely open his mouth. “Moses?” Priscilla said when he entered. She had been dreaming that she was in a strange house, not her cabin, not her mistress’s house, and someone had knocked and she had gone to open the door and welcome the stranger to what she realized as she walked was her own house. “Welcome to my house,” she told the stranger. Moses shut the cabin door and grunted once and Priscilla turned over and tried to go back to sleep.

By morning much of the swelling had gone down and he led the slaves out into the fields. Alice was no different than she was on any other day: a good worker who didn’t sass and who seemed to go up and down a furrow in the time it took most people to turn around good. Occasionally, he would rise from his own work and look over at her, but, as always, she was in her own world. When the wind was right or when there were no songs from anyone, he could hear her: “I’m gonna pick you. I’m gonna pick you. I’m gonna leave you be till you say my name just right.”

That evening he changed and washed at the well and put on his new shirt and britches to report to Caldonia. The work of another day had gone well, he told her. He sat back in the chair and she asked him for the first time if he, too, wanted coffee. He said yes and Loretta brought him coffee in a cup that was identical to the one Caldonia had.

“I worry bout this Alice traipsin off every night,” he said near the end of the meeting. “She might need lockin up every night just so them patrollers don’t do somethin to her.”

“The sheriff and his patrollers have said nothing to me. Has someone said something to you, Moses?”

“Why no, Missus. But she been doin this too long. A crazy woman be a disruption to peace and harmony, I’d say. Evbody else start wantin to act crazy, too.”

“How long has she been doing this?”

“Since the day Marse Henry bought her.”

“Then maybe she’s as insane as she will ever get.”

“Oh, she could get more crazy all right. I wouldn’t put it pas her to get more crazy.”

She set her cup on the little table beside her and leaned her head back and closed her eyes and was silent. He thought she was asleep but she unfolded her arms after several moments and rested her open hands on either side of her body. He followed her neck as it went down from her chin and disappeared into her blouse. She was still but her bosom rose and fell and he watched her for so long that he fell into the pattern of her bosom rising and falling. She had put on weight over the years. He had stood at his cabin door that first night she and Henry were married, had looked up at the house with only mild curiosity. Now he was only the distance of one jackrabbit hop from her, from all that Henry had been able to have any night of their life together.

“You won’t forget him,” she said at last.


“You won’t forget Henry Townsend, will you?”

“I’d sooner forget my own name, Missus.”

“Good night, Moses. Tell Loretta to come in.”

He waited as long as he could and then took the image of her on the settee with him out into the woods. He had not thought of a real woman, a woman he had met in the flesh, since the early days when he would come out there and think of Bessie, the woman Jean Broussard and his Scandinavian partner had purchased along with Moses in Alexandria. Moses rose without lingering in the woods when he was done and listened for Alice.

When he got back to the lane, she was coming out of her cabin and he stepped into her path. She tried going around him but he followed her. “Leave me be or I’ll send you to hell,” he said and raised both fists to her face. “Oh, Marse, I’m just goin to feed my chickens,” she said. “What?” Moses asked. “Whas that you say?” “I’m just goin to feed my chickens. Here little chick. There little chick, lemme feed you.” He pushed her down as hard as he could. “I told you to leave me be.” Alice began crying. “I told you to leave me be.” He left her on the ground. Alice lay down all the way and spread her arms and legs and cried even harder.

Delphie came out and went to her. “Moses, whas this goin on? All right, child. I’m here. Moses, whas the matter with her? You know this ain’t right.”

“I told her to leave me be. You tell her leave me be or I’ll kill her next time. I’ll kill her down dead.” He went home.

Delphie helped Alice to her feet. “You stay in tonight, all right?” Alice stopped crying once she was in the cabin, but an hour later she was back outside, sniffing at doors before setting off.

The next day was Sunday and he did not go out, but on Monday night he waited near the house and watched Alice emerge from the area of the cabins and walk with purpose to the road. The night was very warm and insects pestered him. He did not know how far he would follow but less than half a mile from the plantation he heard the horses galloping toward them. He stepped down into a ravine and could see her and the horses and their men many yards away. Alice lifted her frock and danced and tried to climb onto the horse with one man. The man pushed her away just as the horse reared up. The horses and the men charged off and Moses lay in the ravine until they were gone, closing his eyes and mouth and covering his nose from the dust.

When he raised up, Alice was walking away. Then she stopped and looked around and cocked her head just so. She began chanting again, softly at first, tentative. She stopped chanting several times to listen and to take note of all around her. Each time she took up the chant again, it was with less of the confidence of any previous nights. He waited for more than an hour for her to return, and when she didn’t, he went home. And even after an hour waiting outside his door, she did not appear. He went inside and felt some satisfaction as he remembered how she had looked about and listened for him. Maybe you could just be crazy by pretending to be crazy for a long, long time. He lay down, and before he went to sleep he went through his memory, trying to remember if there had been any slave who had ever escaped from the Townsend plantation. There never had been.

He did not bring up Alice to Caldonia again. The patrollers would take care of her one way or another, he thought. On Wednesday evening the heat of the past few days subsided and Caldonia had Loretta bring him cake along with the coffee. She asked that he tell her again about Henry building the house, tell her about his constructing the parlor and the bedroom alone. “Tell me what he did,” she said, leaning back and closing her eyes.

”Now I’m surprised this house didn’t take years to put up, the way Marse Henry went at it,” Moses said. “Lookin at every nail, as I member. Weighin every board, every board of this very room. Missus, this house will be standin the day Jesus returns to take us all home, thas all the work Marse Henry put into it, all the time and care. I can see him just like it was yesterday.”

“Moses, you won’t forget him, will you?” Before he could answer, she leaned over and put her face in her hands, crying. He stood up. Would Loretta hear and think he had harmed their mistress? He looked at the door and it did not open. He listened, waiting for some great stirring in the house, the converging of dozens on a slave who had taken one step too many, and all he could hear was the house settling in one corner or another, and the sound of a woman crying and filling up the rest of the silence. He went slowly to her and knelt down. “I won’t forget Marse Henry, Missus. I told you I wouldn’t and I won’t, not till I ain’t here anymore.” She continued crying, and then, as the house settled in other corners, he took her hand and opened the fist one finger at a time, ending with the thumb which had been encased in the other four fingers. He kissed the open hand and his world did not end. She pressed her hand to his face and when he looked up at her, she leaned down and kissed him, and still the world did not end.

They stood and held on to each other, and then, as if sharing the same thought, they separated and she put her hand to his chest, counting the beats of his heart. She was still crying. He touched the side of her face and told himself to leave, that that was enough for the evening. She had reached 109 in the beating of his heart when he went to the door and told Loretta that Missus wanted her and walked down the hall to the kitchen, to the back door.

The next night they stayed in their places. He had thought all that day she would not want him to return, but when he went to the back door and Loretta escorted him to the parlor and he saw her sitting just as she had the evening before, he lost the need to worry. That evening he weaved the most imaginative story yet about how Henry Townsend had tamed the land and made the place he would bring his bride to.

“I knowed the minute I laid eyes on you, Missus, that you was the one to make Marse Henry happy. He had this, that and the other but what he really needed was a somebody to set it all right, to shine on it and prettify it.” He went on to create the history of his master, starting with the boy who had enough in his head for two boys. He was present at Henry’s birth, he was there the day he was freed, he gave testimony of how all the best white people stretched out their feet and bid Henry to make them shoes and boots that they could walk to heaven in.

The next evening she cried again and he sat on the settee and held her. Then she allowed him to put her on his lap, with him filling every moment with words about Henry. The lovemaking would not happen for another week, with both of them still mostly clothed and the house very quiet, having done all the settling it would do for that day.

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