Rufus’s father arrived on a flat-bed wagon, carrying his familiar long rifle—an old muzzleloader, I realized. With him in the wagon was Nigel and a tall stocky black man. Tom Weylin was tall himself, but too lean to be as impressive as his massive slave. Weylin didn’t look especially vicious or depraved. Right now, he only looked annoyed. We stood up as he climbed down from the wagon and came to face us.
“What happened here?” he asked suspiciously.
“The boy has broken his leg,” said Kevin. “Are you his father?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“My name’s Kevin Franklin.” He glanced at me, but caught himself and didn’t introduce me. “We came across the two boys right after the accident happened, and I thought we should stay with your son until you came for him.”
Weylin grunted and knelt to look at Rufus’s leg. “Guess it’s broken all right. Wonder how much that’ll cost me.”
The black man gave him a look of disgust that would surely have angered him if he had seen it.
“What were you doing climbing a damn tree?” Weylin demanded of Rufus.
Rufus stared at him silently.
Weylin muttered something I didn’t quite catch. He stood up and gestured sharply to the black man. The man came forward, lifted Rufus gently, and placed him on the wagon. Rufus’s face twisted in pain as he was lifted, and he cried out as he was lowered into the wagon. Kevin and I should have made a splint for that leg, I thought belatedly. I followed the black man to the wagon.
Rufus grabbed my arm and held it, obviously trying not to cry. His voice was a husky whisper.
“Don’t go, Dana.”
I didn’t want to go. I liked the boy, and from what I’d heard of early nineteenth-century medicine, they were going to pour some whiskey down him and play tug of war with his leg. And he was going to learn brand new things about pain. If I could give him any comfort by staying with him, I wanted to stay.
But I couldn’t.
His father had spoken a few private words with Kevin and was now climbing back up onto the seat of the wagon. He was ready to leave and Kevin and I weren’t invited. That didn’t say much for Weylin’s hospitality. People in his time of widely scattered plantations and even more widely scattered hotels had a reputation for taking in strangers. But then, a man who could look at his injured son and think of nothing but how much the doctor bill would be wasn’t likely to be concerned about strangers.
“Come with us,” pleaded Rufus. “Daddy, let them come.”
Weylin glanced back, annoyed, and I tried gently to loosen Rufus’s grip on me. After a moment, I realized that Weylin was looking at me—staring hard at me. Perhaps he was seeing my resemblance to Alice’s mother. He couldn’t have seen me clearly enough or long enough at the river to recognize me now as the woman he had once come so near shooting. At first, I stared back. Then I looked away, remembering that I was supposed to be a slave. Slaves lowered their eyes respectfully. To stare back was insolent. Or at least, that was what my books said.
“Come along and have dinner with us,” Weylin told Kevin. “You may as well. Where were you going to stay the night, anyway?”
“Under the trees if necessary,” said Kevin. He and I climbed onto the wagon beside the silent Nigel. “Not much choice, as I told you.”
I looked at him , wondering what he had told Weylin. Then I had to catch myself as the black man prodded the horses forward.
“You, girl,” Weylin said to me. “What’s your name?”
He turned to stare at me again, this time as though I’d said something wrong. “Where do you come from?”
I glanced at Kevin, not wanting to contradict anything he had said. He gave me a slight nod, and I assumed I was free to make up my own lies. “I’m from New York.”
Now the look he was giving me was really ugly, and I wondered whether he’d heard a New York accent recently and found mine a poor match. Or was I saying something wrong? I hadn’t said ten words to him. What could be wrong?
Weylin looked sharply at Kevin, then turned around and ignored us for the rest of the trip.
We went through the woods to a road, and along the road past a field of tall golden wheat. In the field, slaves, mostly men, worked steadily swinging scythes with attached wooden racks that caught the cut wheat in neat piles. Other slaves, mostly women, followed them tying the wheat into bundles. None of them seemed to pay any attention to us. I looked around for a white overseer and was surprised not to see one. The Weylin house surprised me too when I saw it in daylight. It wasn’t white. It had no columns, no porch to speak of. I was almost disappointed. It was a red-brick Georgian Colonial, boxy but handsome in a quiet kind of way, two and a half stories high with dormered windows and a chimney on each end. It wasn’t big or imposing enough to be called a mansion. In Los Angeles, in our own time, Kevin and I could have afforded it.
As the wagon took us up to the front steps, I could see the river off to one side and some of the land I had run through a few hours— a few years—before. Scattered trees, unevenly cut grass, the row of cabins far off to one side almost hidden by the trees, the fields, the woods. There were other buildings lined up beside and behind the house opposite the slave cabins. As we stopped, I was almost sent off to one of these.
“Luke,” said Weylin to the black man, “take Dana around back and get her something to eat.”
“Yes, sir,” said the black man softly. “Want me to take Marse Rufe upstairs first?”
“Do what I told you. I’ll take him up.”
I saw Rufus set his teeth. “I’ll see you later,” I whispered, but he wouldn’t let go of my hand until I spoke to his father.
“Mr. Weylin, I don’t mind staying with him. He seems to want me to.”
Weylin looked exasperated. “Well, come on then. You can wait with him until the doctor comes.” He lifted Rufus with no particular care, and strode up the steps to the house. Kevin followed him.
“You watch out,” said the black man softly as I started after them.
I looked at him, surprised, not sure he was talking to me. He was.
“Marse Tom can turn mean mighty quick,” he said. “So can the boy, now that he’s growing up. Your face looks like maybe you had enough white folks’ meanness for a while.”
I nodded. “I have, all right. Thanks for the warning.”
Nigel had come to stand next to the man, and I realized as I spoke that the two looked much alike, the boy a smaller replica of the man. Father and son, probably. They resembled each other more than Rufus and Tom Weylin did. As I hurried up the steps and into the house, I thought of Rufus and his father, of Rufus becoming his father. It would happen some day in at least one way. Someday Rufus would own the plantation. Someday, he would be the slaveholder, responsible in his own right for what happened to the people who lived in those half-hidden cabins. The boy was literally growing up as I watched—growing up because I watched and because I helped to keep him safe. I was the worst possible guardian for him—a black to watch over him in a society that considered blacks subhuman, a woman to watch over him in a society that considered women perennial children. I would have all I could do to look after myself. But I would help him as best I could. And I would try to keep friendship with him, maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come. I might even be making things easier for Alice.
Now, I followed Weylin up the stairs to a bedroom—not the same one Rufus had occupied on my last trip. The bed was bigger, its full canopy and draperies blue instead of green. The room itself was bigger. Weylin dumped Rufus onto the bed, ignoring the boy’s cries of pain. It did not look as though Weylin was trying to hurt Rufus. He just didn’t seem to pay any attention to how he handled the boy— as though he didn’t care.
Then, as Weylin was leading Kevin out of the room, a red-haired woman hurried in.
“Where is he?” she demanded breathlessly. “What happened?”
Rufus’s mother. I remembered her. She pushed her way into the room just as I was putting Rufus’s pillow under his head.
“What are you doing to him?” she cried. “Leave him alone!” She tried to pull me away from her son. She had only one reaction when Rufus was in trouble. One wrong reaction.
Fortunately for both of us, Weylin reached her before I forgot myself and pushed her away from me. He caught her, held her, spoke to her quietly.
“Margaret, now listen. The boy has a broken leg, that’s all. There’s nothing you can do for a broken leg. I’ve already sent for the doctor.”
Maragret Weylin seemed to calm down a little. She stared at me. “What’s she doing here?”
“She belongs to Mr. Kevin Franklin here.” Weylin waved a hand presenting Kevin who, to my surprise, bowed slightly to the woman. “Mr. Franklin is the one who found Rufus hurt,” Weylin continued. He shrugged. “Rufus wanted the girl to stay with him. Can’t do any harm.” He turned and walked away. Kevin followed him reluctantly.
The woman may have been listening as her husband spoke, but she didn’t look as though she was. She was still staring at me, frowning at me as though she was trying to remember where she’d seen me before. The years hadn’t changed her much, and, of course, they hadn’t changed me at all. But I didn’t expect her to remember. Her glimpse of me had been too brief, and her mind had been on other things.
“I’ve seen you before,” she said.
Hell! “Yes, ma’am, you may have.” I looked at Rufus and saw that he was watching us.
“Mama?” he said softly.
The accusing stare vanished, and the woman turned quickly to attend him. “My poor baby,” she murmured, cradling his head in her hands. “Seems like everything happens to you, doesn’t it? A broken leg!” She looked close to tears. And there was Rufus, swung from his father’s indifference to his mother’s sugary concern. I wondered whether he was too used to the contrast to find it dizzying.
“Mama, can I have some water?” he asked.
The woman turned to look at me as though I had offended her. “Can’t you hear? Get him some water!”
“Yes, ma’am. Where shall I get it?”
She made a sound of disgust and rushed toward me. Or at least I thought she was rushing toward me. When I jumped out of her way, she kept right on going through the door that I had been standing in front of.
I looked after her and shook my head. Then I took the chair that was near the fireplace and put it beside Rufus’s bed. I sat down and Rufus looked up at me solemnly.
“Did you ever break your leg?” he asked.
“No. I broke my wrist once, though.”
“When they fixed it, did it hurt much?”
I drew a deep breath. “Yes.”
“So was I,” I said remembering. “But . . . Rufe, it won’t take long. And when the doctor is finished, the worst will be over.”
“Won’t it still hurt after?”
“For a while. But it will heal. If you stay off it and give it a chance, it will heal.”
Margaret Weylin rushed back into the room with water for Rufus and more hostility for me than I could see any reason for.
“You’re to go out to the cookhouse and get some supper!” she told me as I got out of her way. But she made it sound as though she were saying, “You’re to go straight to hell!” There was something about me that these people didn’t like—except for Rufus. It wasn’t just racial. They were used to black people. Maybe I could get Kevin to find out what it was.
“Mama, can’t she stay?” asked Rufus.
The woman threw me a dirty look, then turned gentler eyes on her son. “She can come back later,” she told him. “Your father wants her downstairs now.”
More likely, it was his mother who wanted me downstairs now, and possibly for no more substantial reason than that her son liked me. She gave me another look, and I left the room. The woman would have made me uncomfortable even if she’d liked me. She was too much nervous energy compacted into too small a container. I didn’t want to be around when she exploded. But at least she loved Rufus. And he must have been used to her fussing over him. He hadn’t seemed to mind.
I found myself in a wide hallway. I could see the stairs a few feet away and I started toward them. Just then, a young black girl in a long blue dress came out of a door at the other end of the hall. She came toward me, staring at me with open curiosity. She wore a blue scarf on her head and she tugged at it as she came toward me.
“Could you tell me where the cookhouse is, please?” I said when she was near enough. She seemed a safer person to ask than Margaret Weylin.
Her eyes opened a little wider and she continued to stare at me. No doubt I sounded as strange to her as I looked.
“The cookhouse?” I said.
She looked me over once more, then started down the stairs without a word. I hesitated, finally followed her because I didn’t know what else to do. She was a light-skinned girl no older than fourteen or fifteen. She kept looking back at me, frowning. Once she stopped and turned to face me, her hand tugging absently at her scarf, then moving lower to cover her mouth, and finally dropping to her side again. She looked so frustrated that I realized something was wrong.
“Can you talk?” I asked.
She sighed, shook her head.
“But you can hear and understand.”
She nodded, then plucked at my blouse, at my pants. She frowned at me. Was that the problem, then—hers and the Weylins’?
“They’re the only clothes I have right now,” I said. “My master will buy me some better ones sooner or later.” Let it be Kevin’s fault that I was “dressed like a man.” It was probably easier for the people here to understand a master too poor or too stingy to buy me proper clothing than it would be for them to imagine a place where it was normal for women to wear pants.
As though to assure me that I had said the right thing, the girl gave me a look of pity, then took my hand and led me out to the cookhouse.
As we went, I took more notice of the house than I had before- more notice of the downstairs hall, anyway. Its walls were a pale green and it ran the length of the house. At the front, it was wide and bright with light from the windows beside and above the door. It was strewn with oriental rugs of different sizes. Near the front door, there was a wooden bench, a chair, and two small tables. Past the stairs the hall narrowed and at its end, there was a back door that we went through.
Outside was the cookhouse, a little white frame cottage not far behind the main house. I had read about outdoor kitchens and outdoor toilets. I hadn’t been looking forward to either. Now, though, the cookhouse looked like the friendliest place I’d seen since I arrived. Luke and Nigel were inside eating from wooden bowls with what looked like wooden spoons. And there were two younger children, a girl and boy, sitting on the floor eating with their fingers. I was glad to see them there because I’d read about kids their age being rounded up and fed from troughs like pigs. Not everywhere, apparently. At least, not here.
There was a stocky middle-aged woman stirring a kettle that hung over the fire in the fireplace. The fireplace itself filled one whole wall. It was made of brick and above it was a huge plank from which hung a few utensils. There were more utensils off to one side hanging from hooks on the wall. I stared at them and realized that I didn’t know the proper names of any of them. Even things as commonplace as that. I was in a different world.
The cook finished stirring her kettle and turned to look at me. She was as light-skinned as my mute guide—a handsome middle-aged woman, tall and heavy-set. Her expression was grim, her mouth turned down at the comers, but her voice was soft and low.
“Carrie,” she said. “Who’s this?”
My guide looked at me.
“My name is Dana,” I said. “My master’s visiting here. Mrs. Weylin told me to come out for supper.”
“Mrs. Weylin?” The woman frowned at me.
“The red-haired woman—Rufus’s mother.” I didn’t quite catch myself in time to say Mister Rufus. I didn’t really see why I should have to say anything. How many Mrs. Weylins were there on the place anyway?
“Miss Margaret,” said the woman, and under her breath, “Bitch!”
I stared at her in surprise thinking she meant me.
“Sarah!” Luke’s tone was cautioning. He couldn’t have heard what the cook said from where he was. Either she said it often, or he had read her lips. But at least now I understood that it was Mrs. Weylin— Miss Margaret—who was supposed to be the bitch.
The cook said nothing else. She got me a wooden bowl, filled it with something from a pot near the fire, and handed it to me with a wooden spoon.
Supper was corn meal mush. The cook saw that I was looking at it instead of eating it, and she misread my expression.
“That’s not enough?” she asked.
“Oh, it’s plenty!” I held my bowl protectively, fearful that she might give me more of the stuff. “Thank you.”
I sat down at the end of a large heavy table across from Nigel and Luke. I saw that they were eating the same mush, though theirs had milk on it. I considered asking for milk on mine, but I didn’t really think it would help.
Whatever was in the kettle smelled good enough to remind me that I hadn’t had breakfast, hadn’t had more than a few bites of dinner the night before. I was starving and Sarah was cooking meat—probably a stew. I took a bite of the mush and swallowed it without tasting it.
“We get better food later on after the white folks eat,” said Luke. “We get whatever they leave.”
Table scraps, I thought bitterly. Someone else’s leftovers. And, no doubt, if I was here long enough, I would eat them and be glad to get them. They had to be better than boiled meal. I spooned the mush into my mouth, quickly fanning away several large flies. Flies. This was an era of rampant disease. I wondered how clean our leftovers would be by the time they reached us.
“Say you was from New York?” asked Luke.
“Yes,” I repeated. “That’s why I was brought here.” The words, the questions made me think of Alice and her mother. I looked at Luke’s broad face, wondering whether it would do any harm to ask about them. But how could I admit to knowing them—knowing them years ago—when I was supposed to be new here? Nigel knew I had been here before, but Sarah and Luke might not. It would be safer to wait—save my questions for Rufus.
“People in New York talk like you?” asked Nigel.
“Some do. Not all.”
“Dress like you?” asked Luke.
“No. I dress in what Master Kevin gives me to dress in.” I wished they’d stop asking questions. I didn’t want them to make me tell lies I might forget later. Best to keep my background as simple as possible.
The cook came over and looked at me, at my pants. She pinched up a little of the material, feeling it. “What cloth is this?” she asked.
Polyester double knit, I thought. But I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
She shook her head and went back to her pot.
“You know,” I said to her back, “I think I agree with you about Miss Margaret.”
She said nothing. The warmth I’d felt when I came into the room was turning out to be nothing more than the heat of the fire.
“Why you try to talk like white folks?” Nigel asked me.
“I don’t,” I said, surprised. “I mean, this is really the way I talk.”
“More like white folks than some white folks.”
I shrugged, hunted through my mind for an acceptable explanation. “My mother taught school,” I said, “and. . .”
“A nigger teacher?”
I winced, nodded. “Free blacks can have schools. My mother talked the way I do. She taught me.”
“You’ll get into trouble,” he said. “Marse Tom already don’t like you. You talk too educated and you come from a free state.”
“Why should either of those things matter to him? I don’t belong to him.”
The boy smiled. “He don’t want no niggers ’round here talking better than him, putting freedom ideas in our heads.”
“Like we so dumb we need some stranger to make us think about freedom,” muttered Luke.
I nodded, but I hoped they were wrong. I didn’t think I had said enough to Weylin for him to make that kind of judgment. I hoped he wasn’t going to make that kind of judgment. I wasn’t good at accents. I had deliberately decided not to try to assume one. But if that meant I was going to be in trouble every time I opened my mouth, my life here would be even worse than I had imagined.
“How can Marse Rufe see you before you get here?” Nigel asked.
I choked down a swallow of mush. “I don’t know,” I said. “But I wish to heaven he couldn’t!”
I stayed in the cookhouse when I finished eating because it was near the main house, and because I thought I could make it from the cookhouse into the hall if I started to feel dizzy—just in case. Wherever Kevin was in the house, he would hear me if I called from the hallway.
Luke and Nigel finished their meal and went to the fireplace to say something privately to Sarah. At that moment, Carrie, the mute, slipped me bread and a chunk of ham. I looked at it, then smiled at her gratefully. When Luke and Nigel took Sarah out of the room with them, I feasted on a shapeless sandwich. In the middle of it, I caught myself wondering about the ham, wondering how well it had been cooked. I tried to think of something else, but my mind was full of vaguely remembered horror stories of the diseases that ran wild during this time. Medicine was just a little better than witchcraft. Malaria came from bad air. Surgery was performed on struggling wide-awake patients. Germs were question marks even in the minds of many doctors. And people casually, unknowingly ingested all kinds of poorly preserved ill-cooked food that could make them sick or kill them.
Except that they were true, and I was going to have to live with them for as long as I was here. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten the ham, but if I hadn’t, it would be the table leavings later. I would have to take some chances.
Sarah came back with Nigel and gave him a pot of peas to shell. Life went on around me as though I wasn’t there. People came into the cookhouse—always black people—talked to Sarah, lounged around, ate whatever they could put their hands on until Sarah shouted at them and chased them away. I was in the middle of asking her whether there was anything I could do to help out when Rufus began to scream. Nineteenth-century medicine was apparent 1 work.
The walls of the main house were thick and the sound r come from a long way off—thin high-pitched screaming. ‘ had left the cookhouse, now ran back in and sat dc with her hands covering her ears.
Abruptly, the screaming stopped and I move gently. Her sensitivity surprised me. I would havf be used to hearing people scream in pain. She 1 ; heard nothing, then looked at me.
“He probably fainted,” I said. “That’s best for a while.”
She nodded dully and went back out to whatever she had been doing.
“She always did like him,” remarked Sarah into the silence. “He kept the children from bothering her when she was little.”
I was surprised. “Isn’t she a few years older than he is?”
“Born the year before him. Children listened to him though. He’s white.”
“Is Carrie your daughter?”
Sarah nodded. “My fourth baby. The only one Marse Tom let me keep.” Her voice trailed away to a whisper.
“You mean he. . . he sold the others?”
“Sold them. First my man died—a tree he was cutting fell on him. Then Marse Tom took my children, all but Carrie. And, bless God, Carrie ain’t worth much as the others ’cause she can’t talk. People think she ain’t got good sense.”
I looked away from her. The expression in her eyes had gone from sadness—she seemed almost ready to cry—to anger. Quiet, almost frightening anger. Her husband dead, three children sold, the fourth defective, and her having to thank God for the defect. She had reason for more than anger. How amazing that Weylin had sold her children and still kept her to cook his meals. How amazing that he was still alive. I didn’t think he would be for long, though, if he found a buyer for Carrie.
As I was thinking, Sarah turned and threw a handful of something into the stew or soup she was cooking. I shook my head. If she ever decided to take her revenge, Weylin would never know what hit him.
“You can peel these potatoes for me,” she said.
T had to think a moment to remember that I had offered my help. I he large pan of potatoes that she was handing me and a knife ooden bowl, and I worked silently, sometimes peeling, and driving away the bothersome flies. Then I heard Kevin t me. I had to make myself put the potatoes down ’r them with a cloth Sarah had left on the table. Then bout haste, without any sign of the eagerness or re- him nearby again. I went to him and he looked at
hand, but I drew back, looking at him. He dropped his hand to his side. “Come on,” he said wearily. “Let’s go where we can talk.”
He led the way past the main house away from the slave cabins and other buildings, away from the small slave children who chased each other and shouted and didn’t understand yet that they were slaves.
We found a huge oak with branches thick as separate trees spread wide to shade a large area. A handsome lonely old tree. We sat beside it putting it between ourselves and the house. I settled close to Kevin, relaxing, letting go of tension I had hardly been aware of. We said nothing for a while, as he leaned back and seemed to let go of tensions of his own.
Finally, he said, “There are so many really fascinating times we could have gone back to visit.”
I laughed without humor. “I can’t think of any time I’d like to go back to. But of all of them, this must be one of the most dangerous— for me anyway.”
“Not while I’m with you.”
I glanced at him gratefully.
“Why did you try to stop me from coming?”
“I was afraid for you.”
“At first, I didn’t know why. I just had the feeling you might be hurt trying to come with me. Then when you were here, I realized that you probably couldn’t get back without me. That means if we’re separated, you’re stranded here for years, maybe for good.”
He drew a deep breath and shook his head. “There wouldn’t be anything good about that.”
“Stay close to me. If I call, come quick.”
He nodded, and after a while said, “I could survive here, though, if I had to. I mean if . . .”
“Kevin, no ifs. Please.”
“I only mean I wouldn’t be in the danger you would be in.”
“No.” But he’d be in another kind of danger. A place like this would endanger him in a way I didn’t want to talk to him about. If he was stranded here for years, some part of this place would rub off on him. No large part, I knew. But if he survived here, it would be because he managed to tolerate the life here. He wouldn’t have to take part in it, but he would have to keep quiet about it. Free speech and press hadn’t done too well in the ante bellum South. Kevin wouldn’t do too well either. The place, the time would either kill him outright or mark him somehow. I didn’t like either possibility.
I looked at him.
“Don’t worry. We arrived together and we’ll leave together.”
I didn’t stop worrying, but I smiled and changed the subject. “How’s Rufus? I heard him screaming.”
“Poor kid. I was glad when he passed out. The doctor gave him some opium, but the pain seemed to reach him right through it. I had to help hold him .”
“Opium . . . will he be all right?”
“The doctor thought so. Although I don’t know how much a doctor’s opinion is worth in this time.”
“I hope he’s right. I hope Rufus has used up all his bad luck just in getting the set of parents he’s stuck with.”
Kevin lifted one arm and turned it to show me a set of long bloody scratches.
“Margaret Weylin,” I said softly.
“She shouldn’t have been there,” he said. “When she finished with me, she started on the doctor. ‘Stop hurting my baby!’ ”
I shook my head. “What are we going to do, Kevin? Even if these people were sane, we couldn’t stay here among them.”
“Yes we can.”
I turned to stare at him.
“I made up a story for Weylin to explain why we were here—and why we were broke. He offered me a job.”
“Tutoring your little friend. Seems he doesn’t read or write any better than he climbs trees.”
“But. . . doesn’t he go to school?”
“Not while that leg is healing. And his father doesn’t want him to fall any farther behind than he already is.”
“Is he behind others his age?”
“Weylin seemed to t hink so. He didn’t come right out and say it, but I think he’s afraid the kid isn’t very bright.”
“I’m surprised he cares one way or the other, and I think he’s wrong. But for once Rufus’s bad luck is our good luck. I doubt that we’ll be here long enough for you to collect any of your salary, but at least while we’re here, we’ll have food and shelter.”
“That’s what I thought when I accepted.”
“And what about me?”
“Weylin didn’t say anything about me?”
“No. Why should he? If I stay here, he knows you stay too.”
“Yes.” I smiled. “You’re right. If you didn’t remember me in your bargaining, why should he? I’ll bet he won’t forget me though when he has work that needs to be done.”
“Wait a minute, you don’t have to work for him. You’re not supposed to belong to him.”
“No, but I’m here. And I’m supposed to be a slave. What’s a slave for, but to work? Believe me, he’ll find something for me to do—or he would if I didn’t plan to find my own work before he gets around to me.”
He frowned. “You want to work?”
“I want to … I have to make a place for myself here. That means work. I think everyone here, black and white, will resent me if I don’t work. And I need friends. I need all the friends I can make here, Kevin. You might not be with me when I come here again. If I come here again.”
“And unless that kid gets a lot more careful, you will come here again.”
I sighed. “It looks that way.”
“I hate to think of your working for these people.” He shook his head. “I hate to think of you playing the part of a slave at all.”
“We knew I’d have to do it.”
He said nothing.
“Call me away from them now and then, Kevin. Just to remind them that whatever I am, they don’t own me. . . yet.”
He shook his head again angrily in what looked like a refusal, but I knew he’d do it.
“What lies did you tell Weylin about us?” I asked him. “The way people ask questions around here, we’d better make sure we’re both telling the same story.”
For several seconds, he said nothing.
He took a deep breath. “I’m supposed to be a writer from New York,” he said finally. “God help us if we meet any New Yorkers. I’m traveling through the South doing research for a book. I have no money because I drank with the wrong people a few days ago and was robbed. All I have left is you. I bought you before I was robbed because you could read and write. I thought you could help me in my work as well as be of use otherwise.”
“Did he believe that?”
“It’s possible that he did. He was already pretty sure you could read and write. That’s one reason he seemed so suspicious and mistrustful. Educated slaves aren’t popular around here.”
I shrugged. “So Nigel has been telling me.”
“Weylin doesn’t like the way you talk. I don’t think he’s had much education himself, and he resents you. I don’t think he’ll bother you —I wouldn’t stay here if I did. But keep out of his way as much as you can.”
“Gladly. I plan to fit myself into the cookhouse if I can. I’m going to tell Sarah you want me to learn how to cook for you.”
He gave a short laugh. “I’d better tell you the rest of the story I told Weylin. If Sarah hears it all, she might teach you how to put a little poison in my food.”
I think I jumped.
“Weylin was warning me that it was dangerous to keep a slave like you—educated, maybe kidnapped from a free state—as far north as this. He said I ought to sell you to some trader heading for Georgia or Louisiana before you ran away and I lost my investment. That gave me the idea to tell him I planned to sell you in Louisiana because that was where my journey ended—and I’d heard I could make a nice profit on you down there.
“That seemed to please him and he told me I was right—prices were better in Louisiana if I could hold on to you until I got you there. So I said educated or not, you weren’t likely to run away from me because I’d promised to take you back to New York with me and set you free. I told him you didn’t really want to leave me right now anyway. He got the idea.”
“You make yourself sound disgusting.”
“I know. I think I was trying to at the end—trying to see whether anything I did to you could make me someone he wouldn’t want anywhere near his kid. I think he did cool a little toward me when I said I’d promised you freedom, but he didn’t say anything.”
“What were you trying to do? Lose the job you’d just gotten?”
“No, but while I was talking to him, all I could think was that you might be coming back here alone someday. I kept trying to find the humanity in him to reassure myself that you would be all right.”
“Oh, he’s human enough. If he were of a little higher social class, he might even have been disgusted enough with your bragging not to want you around. But he wouldn’t have had the right to stop you from betraying me. I’m your private property. He’d respect that.”
“You call that human? I’m going to do all I can to see that you never come here alone again.”
I leaned back against the tree, watching him. “Just in case I do, Kevin, let’s take out some insurance.”
“Let me help you with Rufus as much as I can. Let’s see what we can do to keep him from growing up into a red-haired version of his father.”
But for three days I didn’t see Rufus. Nor did anything happen to bring on the dizziness that would tell me I was going home at last. I helped Sarah as well as I could. She seemed to warm up to me a little and she was patient with my ignorance of cooking. She taught me and saw to it that I ate better. No more corn meal mush once she realized I didn’t like it. (“Why didn’t you say something?” she asked me.) Under her direction, I spent God knows how long beating biscuit dough with a hatchet on a well-worn tree stump. (“Not so hard! You ain’t driving nails. Regular, like this . . .” ) I cleaned and plucked a chicken, prepared vegetables, kneaded bread dough, and when Sarah was weary of me, helped Carrie and the other house servants with their work. I kept Kevin’s room clean. I brought him hot water to wash and shave with, and I washed in his room. It was the only place I could go for privacy. I kept my canvas bag there and went there to avoid Margaret Weylin when she came rubbing her fingers over dustless furniture and looking under rugs on well-swept floors. Differences be damned, I did know how to sweep and dust no matter what century it was. Margaret Weylin complained because she couldn’t find anything to complain about. That, she made painfully clear to me the day she threw scalding hot coffee at me, screaming that I had brought it to her cold.
So I hid from her in Kevin’s room. It was my refuge. But it was not my sleeping place.
I had been given sleeping space in the attic where most of the house servants slept. It apparently never occurred to anyone that I should sleep in Kevin’s room. Weylin knew what kind of relationship Kevin was supposed to have with me, and he made it clear that he didn’t care. But our sleeping arrangement told us that he expected discretion—or we assumed it did. We co-operated for three days. On the fourth day, Kevin caught me on my way out to the cookhouse and took me to the oak tree again.
“Are you having trouble with Margaret Weylin?” he asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” I said, surprised. “Why?”
“I heard a couple of the house servants talking, just saying vaguely that there was trouble. I thought I should find out for sure.”
I shrugged, said, “I think she resents me because Rufus likes me. She probably doesn’t want to share her son with anyone. Heaven help him when he gets a little older and tries to break away. Also, I don’t think Margaret likes educated slaves any better than her husband does.”
“I see. I was right about him, by the way. He can barely read and write. And she’s not much better.” He turned to face me squarely. “Did she throw a pot of hot coffee on you?”
I looked away. “It doesn’t matter. Most of it missed anyway.”
“Why didn’t you tell me? She could have hurt you.”
“I don’t think we should give her another chance.”
I looked at him. “What do you want to do?”
“Get out of here. We don’t need money badly enough for you to put up with whatever she plans to do next.”
“No, Kevin. I had a reason for not telling you about the coffee.”
“I’m wondering what else you haven’t told me.”
“Nothing important.” My mind went back over some of Margaret’s petty insults. “Nothing important enough to make me leave.”
“But why? There’s no reason for. . .”
“Yes there is. I’ve thought about it, Kevin. It isn’t the money that I care about, or even having a roof over my head. I think we can survive here together no matter what. But I don’t think I have much chance of surviving here alone. I’ve told you that.”
“You won’t be alone. I’ll see to it.”
“You’ll try. Maybe that will be enough. I hope so. But if it isn’t, if I do have to come here alone, I’ll have a better chance of surviving if I stay here now and work on the insurance we talked about. Rufus.
He’ll probably be old enough to have some authority when I come again. Old enough to help me. I want him to have as many good memories of me as I can give him now.”
“He might not remember you past the day you leave here.”
“It still might not work. After all, his environment will be influencing him every day you’re gone. And from what I’ve heard, it’s common in this time for the master’s children to be on nearly equal terms with the slaves. But maturity is supposed to put both in their ‘places.’ ”
“Sometimes it doesn’t. Even here, not all children let themselves be molded into what their parents want them to be.”
“You’re gambling. Hell, you’re gambling against history .”
“What else can I do? I’ve got to try, Kevin, and if trying means taking small risks and putting up with small humiliations now so that I can survive later, I’ll do it.”
He drew a deep breath and let it out in a near whistle. “Yeah. I guess I don’t blame you. I don’t like it, but I don’t blame you.”
I put my head on his shoulder. “I don’t like it either. God, I hate it! That woman is priming herself for a nervous breakdown. I just hope she doesn’t have it while I’m here.”
Kevin shifted his position a little and I sat up. “Let’s forget about Margaret for a moment,” he said. “I also wanted to talk to you about that. . . that place where you sleep.”
“Yes, oh. I finally got up to see it. A rag pallet on the floor, Dana!”
“Did you see anything else up there?”
“What? What else should I have seen?”
“A lot of rag pallets on the floor. And a couple of corn-shuck mattresses. I’m not being treated any worse than any other house servant, Kevin, and I’m doing better than the field hands. Their pallets are on the ground. Their cabins don’t even have floors, and most of them are full of fleas.”
There was a long silence. Finally, he sighed. “I can’t do anything for the others,” he said, “but I want you out of that attic. I want you with me.”
I sat up and stared down at my hands. “You don’t know how I’ve wanted to be with you. I keep imagining myself waking up at home some morning—alone.”
“Not likely. Not unless something threatens you or endangers you during the night.”
“You don’t know that for sure. Your theory could be wrong. Maybe there’s some kind of limi t on how long I can stay here. Maybe a bad dream would be enough to send me home. Maybe anything.”
“Maybe I should test my theory.”
That stopped me. I realized he was talking about endangering me himself, or at least making me believe my life was in danger—scaring the hell out of me. Scaring me home. Maybe.
I swallowed. “That might be a good idea, but I don’t think you should have mentioned it to me—warned me. Besides . . . I’m not sure you could scare me enough. I trust you.”
He covered one of my hands with his own. “You can go on trusting me. I won’t hurt you.”
“But. . ”
“I don’t have to hurt you. I can arrange something that will scare you before you have time to think about it. I can handle it.”
I accepted that, began to think maybe he really could get us home. “Kevin, wait until Rufus’s leg is healed.”
“So long?” he protested. “Six weeks, maybe more. Hell, in a society as backward as this, who knows whether the leg will heal at all?”
“Whatever happens, the boy will live. He still has to father a child. And that means he’ll probably have time to call me here again, with or without you. Give me the chance I need, Kevin, to reach him and make a haven for myself here.”
“All right,” he said sighing. “We’ll wait awhile. But you won’t do your waiting in that attic. You’re moving into my room tonight.”
I thought about that. “All right. Getting you home with me when I go is the one thing more important to me than staying with Rufus. It’s worth getting kicked off the plantation for.”
“Don’t worry about that. Weylin doesn’t care what we do.”
“But Margaret will care. I’ve seen her using that limited reading ability of hers on her Bible. I suspect that in her own way, she’s a fairly moral woman.”
“You want to know how moral she is?”
His tone made me frown. “What do you mean?”
“If she chases me any harder, she and I will wind up playing a scene from that Bible she reads. The scene between Potiphar’s wife and Joseph.”
I swallowed. That woman! But I could see her in my mind’s eye. Long thick red hair piled high on her head, fine smooth skin. Whatever her emotional problems, she wasn’t ugly.
“I’m moving in tonight, all right,” I said.
He smiled. “If we’re quiet about it, they might not even bother to notice. Hell, I saw three little kids playing in the dirt back there who look more like Weylin than Rufus does. Margaret’s had a lot of practice at not noticing.”
I knew which children he meant. They had different mothers, but there was a definite family resemblance between them. I’d seen Margaret Weylin slap one of them hard across the face. The child had done nothing more than toddle into her path. If she was willing to punish a child for her husband’s sins, would she be any less willing to punish me if she knew that I was where she wanted to be with Kevin? I tried not to think about it.
“We still might have to leave,” I said. “No matter what these people have to accept from each other, they might not be willing to tolerate ‘immorality’ from us.”
He shrugged. “If we have to leave, we leave. There’s a limit to what you should put up with even to get your chance with the boy. We’ll work our way to Baltimore. I should be able to get some kind of job there.”
“If we go to a city, how about Philadelphia?”
“Because it’s in Pennsylvania. If we leave here, let it be for a free state.”
“Oh. Yes, I should have thought of that myself. Look . . . Dana, we might have to go to one of the free states, anyway.” He hesitated. “I mean if it turns out we can’t get home the way we think we can. I’ll probably become an unnecessary expense to Weylin when Rufus’s leg heals. Then we’d have to make a home for ourselves somewhere. That probably won’t happen, but it’s a possibility.”
“Now let’s go get whatever belongs to you out of that attic.” He stood up. “And, Dana, Rufus says his mother is going out visiting today. He’d like to see you w hil e she’s gone.”
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? A start finally!”
Later that day, as I was mixing some corn-bread batter for Sarah, Carrie came to get me. She made a sign to Sarah that I had already learned to understand. She wiped the side of her face with one hand as though rubbing something off. Then she pointed to me.
“Dana,” said Sarah over her shoulder, “one of the white folks wants you. Go with Carrie.”
I went. Carrie led me up to Rufus’s room, knocked, and left me there. I went in and found Rufus in bed with his leg sandwiched between the two boards of a wooden splint and held straight by a device of rope and cast iron. The iron weight looked like something borrowed from Sarah’s kitchen—a heavy little hooked thing I’d once seen her hang meat on to roast. But it apparently served just as well to keep Rufus’s leg in traction.
“How are you feeling?” I asked as I sat down in the chair beside his bed.
“It doesn’t hurt as much as it did,” he said. “I guess it’s getting well. Kevin said … Do you care if I call him Kevin?”
“No, I think he wants you to.”
“I have to call him Mr. Franklin when Mama is here. Anyway, he said you’re working with Aunt Sarah.”
Aunt Sarah? Well, that was better than Mammy Sarah, I supposed. “I’m learning her way of cooking.”
“She’s a good cook, but. . . does she hit you?”
“Of course not.” I laughed.
“She had a girl in there a while back, and she used to hit her. The girl finally asked Daddy to let her go back to the fields. That was right after Daddy sold Aunt Sarah’s boys, though. Aunt Sarah was mad at everybody then.”
“I don’t blame her,” I said.
Rufus glanced at the door, then said low-voiced, “Neither do I. Her boy Jim was my friend. He taught me how to ride when I was little. But Daddy sold him anyway.” He glanced at the door again and changed the subject. “Dana, can you read?”
“Kevin said you could. I told Mama, and she said you couldn’t.”
I shrugged. “What do you think?”
He took a leather-bound book from under his pillow. “Kevin brought me this from downstairs. Would you read it to me?”
I fell in love with Kevin all over again. Here was the perfect excuse for me to spend a lot of time with the boy. The book was Robinson Crusoe. I had read it when I was little, and I could remember not really liking it, but not quite being able to put it down.
Crusoe had, after all, been on a slave-trading voyage when he was shipwrecked.
I opened the book with some apprehension, wondering what archaic spelling and punctuation I would face. I found the expected f’s for s’s and a few other things that didn’t turn up as often, but I got used to them very quickly. And I began to get into Robinson Crusoe. As a kind of castaway myself, I was happy to escape into the fictional world of someone else’s trouble.
I read and read and drank some of the water Rufus’s mother had left for him, and read some more. Rufus seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t stop until I thought he was falling asleep. But even then, as I put the book down, he opened his eyes and smiled.
“Nigel said your mother was a school teacher.”
“I like the way you read. It’s almost like being there watching everything happen.”
“There’s a lot more books downstairs.”
“I’ve seen them.” I had also wondered about them. The Weylins didn’t seem to be the kind of people who would have a library.
“They belonged to Miss Hannah,” explained Rufus obligingly. “Daddy was married to her before he married Mama, but she died. This place used to be hers. He said she read so much that before he married Mama, he made sure she didn’t like to read.”
“What about you?”
He moved uncomfortably. “Reading’s too much trouble. Mr. Jennings said I was too stupid to learn anyway.”
“Who’s Mr. Jennings?”
“He’s the schoolmaster.”
“Is he?” I shook my head in disgust. “He shouldn’t be. Listen, do you think you’re stupid?”
“No.” A small hesitant no. “But I read as good as Daddy does already. Why should I have to do more than that?”
“You don’t have to. You can stay just the way you are. Of course, that would give Mr. Jennings the satisfaction of thinking he was right about you. Do you like him ?”
“Nobody likes him.”
“Don’t be so eager to satisfy him then. And what about the boys you go to school with? It is just boys, isn’t it—no girls?”
“Well look at the advantage they’re going to have over you when you grow up. They’ll know more than you. They’ll be able to cheat you if they want to. Besides,” I held up Robinson Crusoe, “look at the pleasure you’ll miss.”
He grinned. “Not with you here. Read some more.”
“I don’t think I’d better. It’s getting late. Your mother will be home soon.”
“No she won’t. Read.”
I sighed. “Rufe, your mother doesn’t like me. I think you know that.”
He looked away. “We have a little more time,” he said. “Maybe you’d better not read though. I forget to listen for her when you read.”
I handed him the book. “You read me a few lines.”
He accepted the book, looked at it as though it were his enemy. After a moment, he began to read haltingly. Some words stopped him entirely and I had to help. After two painful paragraphs, he stopped and shut the book in disgust. “You can’t even tell it’s the same book when I read it,” he said.
“Let Kevin teach you,” I said. “He doesn’t believe you’re stupid, and neither do I. You’ll learn all right.” Unless he really did have some kind of problem—poor vision or some learning disability that people in this time would see as stubbornness or stupidity. Unless. What did I know about teaching children? All I could do was hope the boy had as much potential as I thought he did.
I got up to go—then sat down again, remembering another unanswered question. “Rufe, what ever happened to Alice?”
“Nothing.” He looked surprised.
“I mean … the last time I saw her, her father had just been beaten because he went to see her and her mother.”
“Oh. Well, Daddy was afraid he’d run off, so he sold him to a trader.”
“Sold him . . . does he still live around here?”
“No, the trader was headed south. To Georgia, I think.”
“Oh God.” I sighed. “Are Alice and her mother still here?”
“Sure. I still see them—when I can walk.”
“Did they have any trouble because I was with them that night?” That was as near as I dared to come to asking what had happened to my would-be enslaver.
“I don’t think so. Alice said you came and went away quick.”
“I went home. I can’t tell when I’m going to do that. It just happens.”
“Back to California?”
“Alice didn’t see you go. She said you just went into the woods and didn’t come back.”
“That’s good. Seeing me vanish would have frightened her.” Alice was keeping her mouth closed too then—or her mother was. Alice might not know what happened. Clearly there were things that even a friendly young white could not be told. On the other hand, if the patroller himself hadn’t spread the word about me or taken revenge on Alice and her mother, maybe he was dead. My blow could have killed him, or someone could have finished him after I went home. If they had, I didn’t want to know about it.
I got up again. “I have to go, Rufe. I’ll see you again whenever I can.”
I looked down at him.
“I told Mama who you were. I mean that you were the one who saved me from the river. She said it wasn’t true, but I think she really believed me. I told her because I thought it might make her like you better.”
“It hasn’t that I’ve noticed.”
“I know.” He frowned. “Why doesn’t she like you? Did you do something to her?”
“Not likely! After all, what would happen to me if I did something to her?”
“Yeah. But why doesn’t she like you?”
“You’ll have to ask her.”
“She won’t tell me.” He looked up solemnly. “I keep thinking you’re going to go home—that somebody will come and tell me you and Kevin are gone. I don’t want you to go. But I don’t want you to get hurt here either.”
I said nothing.
“You be careful,” he said softly.
I nodded and left the room. Just as I reached the stairs, Tom Weylin came out of his bedroom.
“What are you doing up here?” he demanded.
“Visiting Mister Rufus,” I said. “He asked to see me.”
“You were reading to him!”
Now I knew how he happened to come out just in time to catch me. He had been eavesdropping, for Godsake. What had he expected to hear? Or rather, what had he heard that he shouldn’t have? About Alice, perhaps. What would he make of that? For a moment my mind raced, searching for excuses, explanations. Then I realized I wouldn’t need them. I would have met him outside Rufus’s door if he had stayed long enough to hear about Alice. He had probably heard me addressing Rufus a little too familiarly. Nothing worse. I had deliberately not said anything damaging about Margaret because I thought her own attitude would damage her more in her son’s eyes than anything I could say. I made myself face Weylin calmly.
“Yes, I was reading to him,” I admitted. “He asked me to do that too. I think he was bored lying in there with nothing to do.”
“I didn’t ask you what you thought,” he said.
I said nothing.
He walked me farther from Rufus’s door, then stopped and turned to look hard at me. His eyes went over me like a man sizing up a woman for sex, buc I got no message of lust from him. His eyes, I noticed, not for the first time, were almost as pale as Kevin’s. Rufus and his mother had bright green eyes. I liked the green better, somehow.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“You say that like you’re sure.”
“Yes, sir. I am.”
“What year were you born?”
“Seventeen ninety-three.” I had figured that out days ago thinking that it wasn’t a part of my personal history I should hesitate over if someone asked. At home, a person who hesitated over his birthdate was probably about to lie. As I spoke though, I realized that here, a person might hesitate over his birthdate simply because he didn’t know it. Sarah didn’t know hers.
“Twenty-six then,” said Weylin. “How many children have you had?”
“None.” I kept my face impassive, but I couldn’t keep myself from wondering where these questions were leading.
“No children by now?” He frowned. “You must be barren then.”
I said nothing. I wasn’t about to explain anything to him. My fertility was none of his business, anyway.
He stared at me a little longer, making me angry and uncomfortable, but I concealed my feelings as well as I could.
“You like children though, don’t you?” he asked. “You like my boy.”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Can you cipher too—along with your reading and writing?”
“How’d you like to be the one to do the teaching?”
“Me?” I managed to frown . . . managed not to laugh aloud with relief. Tom Weylin wanted to buy me. In spite of all his warnings to Kevin of the dangers of owning educated, Northern-bom slaves, he wanted to buy me. I pretended not to understand. “But that’s Mr. Franklin’s job.”
“Could be your job.”
“I could buy you. Then you’d live here instead of traveling around the country without enough to eat or a place to sleep.”
I lowered my eyes. “That’s for Mr. Franklin to say.”
“I know it is, but how do you feel about it?”
“Well … no offense, Mr. Weylin, I’m glad we stopped here, and as I said, I like your son. But I’d rather stay with Mr. Franklin.”
He gave me an unmistakable look of pity. “If you do, girl, you’ll live to regret it.” He turned and walked away.
I stared after him believing in spite of myself that he really felt sorry for me.
That night I told Kevin what had happened, and he wondered too.
“Be careful, Dana,” he said, unwittingly echoing Rufus. “Be as careful as you can.”
I was careful. As the days passed, I got into the habit of being careful. I played the slave, minded my manners probably more than I had to because I wasn’t sure what I could get away with. Not much, as it turned out.
Once I was called over to the slave cabins—the quarter—to watch Weylin punish a field hand for the crime of answering back. Weylin ordered the man stripped naked and tied to the trunk of a dead tree. As this was being done—by other slaves—Weylin stood whirling his whip and biting his thin lips. Suddenly, he brought the whip down across the slave’s back. The slave’s body jerked and strained against its ropes. I watched the whip for a moment wondering whether it was like the one Weylin had used on Rufus years before. If it was, I understood completely why Margaret Weylin had taken the boy and fled. The whip was heavy and at least six feet long, and I wouldn’t have used it on anything living. It drew blood and screams at every blow. I watched and listened and longed to be away. But Weylin was making an example of the man. He had ordered all of us to watch the beating—all the slaves. Kevin was in the main house somewhere, probably not even aware of what was happening.
The whipping served its purpose as far as I was concerned. It scared me, made me wonder how long it would be before I made a mistake that would give someone reason to whip me. Or had I already made that mistake?
I had moved into Kevin’s room, after all. And though that would be perceived as Kevin’s doing, I could be made to suffer for it. The fact that the Weylins didn’t seem to notice my move gave me no real comfort. Their lives and mine were so separate that it might take them several days to realize that I had abandoned my place in the attic. I always got up before they did to get water and live coals from the cookhouse to start Kevin’s fire. Matches had apparently not been invented yet. Neither Sarah nor Rufus had ever heard of them.
By now, the manservant Weylin had assigned to Kevin ignored him completely, and Kevin and his room were left to me. It took us twice as long to get a fire started, and it took me longer to carry water up and down the stairs, but I didn’t care. The jobs I had assigned myself gave me legitimate reason for going in and out of Kevin’s room at all hours, and they kept me from being assigned more disagreeable work. Most important to me, though, they gave me a chance to preserve a little of 1976 amid the slaves and slaveholders.
After washing and watching Kevin bloody his face with the straight razor he had borrowed from Weylin, I would go down to help Sarah with breakfast. Whole mornings went by without my seeing either of the Weylins. At night, I helped clean up after supper and prepare for the next day. So, like Sarah and Carrie, I rose before the Weylins and went to bed after them. That gave me several days of peace before Margaret Weylin discovered that she had another reason to dislike me.
She cornered me one day as I swept the library. If she had walked in two minutes earlier, she would have caught me reading a book. “Where did you sleep last night?” she demanded in the strident accusing voice she reserved for slaves.
I straightened to face her, rested my hands on the broom. How lovely it would have been to say, None of your business, bitch! Instead, I spoke softly, respectfully. “In Mr. Franklin’s room, ma’am.” I didn’t bother to lie because all the house servants knew. It might even have been one of them who alerted Margaret. So now what would happen?
Margaret slapped me across the face.
I stood very still, gazed down at her with frozen calm. She was three or four inches shorter than I was and proportionately smaller. Her slap hadn’t hurt me much. It had simply made me want to hurt her. Only my memory of the whip kept me still.
“You filthy black whore!” she shouted. “This is a Christian house!”
I said nothing.
“I’ll see you sent to the quarter where you belong!”
Still I said nothing. I looked at her.
“I won’t have you in my house!” She took a step back from me. “You stop looking at me that way!” She took another step back.
It occurred to me that she was a little afraid of me. I was an unknown, after all—an unpredictable new slave. And maybe I was a little too silent. Slowly, deliberately, I turned my back and went on sweeping.
I kept an eye on hen, though, without seeming to. After all, she was as unpredictable as I was. She could pick up a candlestick or a vase and hit me with it. And whip or no whip, I wasn’t going to stand passively and let her really hurt me.
But she made no move toward me. Instead, she turned and rushed away.
It was a hot day, muggy and uncomfortable. No one else was moving very fast except to wave away flies. But Margaret Weylin still rushed everywhere. She had little or nothing to do. Slaves kept her house clean, did much of her sewing, all her cooking and washing. Carrie even helped her put her clothes on and take them off. So Margaret supervised—ordered people to do work they were already doing, criticized their slowness and laziness even when they were quick and industrious, and in general, made trouble. Weylin had married a poor, uneducated, nervous, startlingly pretty young woman who was determined to be the kind of person she thought of as a lady. That meant she didn’t do “menial” work, or any work at all, apparently. I had no one to compare her to except her guests who seemed, at least, to be calmer. But I suspected that most women of her time found enough to do to keep themselves comfortably busy whether they thought of themselves as “ladies” or not. Margaret, in her boredom, simply rushed around and made a nuisance of herself.
I finished my work in the library, wondering all the while whether Margaret had gone to her husband about me. Her husband, I feared. I remembered the expression on his face when he had beaten the field hand. It hadn’t been gleeful or angry or even particularly interested. He could have been chopping wood. He wasn’t sadistic, but he didn’t shrink from his “duties” as master of the plantation. He would beat me bloody if he thought I had given him reason, and Kevin might not even find out until too late.
I went up to Kevin’s room, but he wasn’t there. I heard him when I passed Rufus’s room and I would have gone in, but a moment later, I heard Margaret’s voice. Repelled, I went back downstairs and out to the cookhouse.
Sarah and Carrie were alone when I went in, and I was glad of that. Sometimes old people and children lounged there, or house servants or even field hands stealing a few moments of leisure. I liked to listen to them talk sometimes and fight my way through their accents to find out more about how they survived lives of slavery. Without knowing it, they prepared me to survive. But now I wanted only Sarah and Carrie. I could say what I felt around them, and it wouldn’t get back to either of the Weylins.
“Dana,” Sarah greeted me, “you be careful. I spoke for you today. I don’t want you making me out to be a liar!”
I frowned. “Spoke for me? To Miss Margaret?”
Sarah gave a short harsh laugh. “No! You know I don’t say no more to her than I can help. She’s got her house, and I got my kitchen.”
I smiled and my own trouble receded a little. Sarah was right. Margaret Weylin kept out of her way. Talk between them was brief and confined usually to meal planning.
“Why do you dislike her so if she doesn’t bother you?” I asked.
Sarah gave me the look of silent rage that I had not seen since my first day on the plantation. “Whose idea you think it was to sell my babies?”
“Oh.” She had not mentioned her lost children since that first day either.
“She wanted new furniture, new china dishes, fancy things you see in that house now. What she had was good enough for Miss Hannah, and Miss Hannah was a real lady. Quality. But it wasn’t good enough for white-trash Margaret. So she made Marse Tom sell my three boys to get money to buy things she didn’t even need!”
“Oh.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. My trouble seemed to shrink and become not worth mentioning. Sarah was silent for a while, her hands kneading bread dough automatically, maybe with a little more vigor than necessary. Finally she spoke again.
“It was Marse Tom I spoke to for you.”
I jumped. “Am I in trouble?”
“Not by anything I said. He just wanted to know how you work and are you lazy. I told him you wasn’t lazy. Told him you didn’t know how to do some things—and, girl, you come here not knowing how to do nothing, but I didn’t tell him that. I said if you don’t know how to do something, you find out. And you work. I tell you to do something, I know it’s going to be done. Marse Tom say he might buy you.”
“Mr. Franklin won’t sell me.”
She lifted her head a little and literally looked down her nose at me. “No. Guess he won’t. Anyway, Miss Margaret don’t want you here.”
“Bitch,” muttered Sarah monotonously. Then, “Well, greedy and mean as she is, at least she don’t bother Carrie much.”
I looked at the mute girl eating stew and corn bread left over from the table of the whites. “Doesn’t she, Carrie?”
Carrie shook her head and kept eating.
“Course,” said Sarah, turning away from the bread dough, “Carrie don’t have nothing Miss Margaret wants.”
I just looked at her.
“You’re caught between,” she said. “You know that don’t you?”
“One man ought to be enough for her.”
“Don’t matter what ought to be. Matters what is. Make him let you sleep in the attic again.”
“Girl . . She smiled a little. “I see you and him together sometimes when you think nobody’s looking. You can make him do just about anything you want him to do.”
Her smile surprised me. I would have expected her to be disgusted with me—or with Kevin.
“Fact,” she continued, “if you got any sense, you’ll try to get him to free you now while you still young and pretty enough for him to listen.”
I looked at her appraisingly—large dark eyes set in a full unlined face several shades lighter than my own. She had been pretty herself not long ago. She was still an attractive woman. I spoke to her softly. “Were you sensible, Sarah? Did you try when you were younger?”
She stared hard at me, her large eyes suddenly narrowed. Finally, she walked away without answering.
I didn’t move to the quarter. I took some cookhouse advice that I’d once heard Luke give to Nigel. “Don’t argue with white folks,” he had said. “Don’t tell them ‘no.’ Don’t let them see you mad. Just say ‘yes, sir.’ Then go ’head and do what you want to do. Might have to take a whippin’ for it later on, but if you want it bad enough, the whippin’ won’t matter much.”
There were a few whip marks on Luke’s back, and I’d twice heard Tom Weylin swear to give them company. But he hadn’t. And Luke went about his business, doing pretty much as he pleased. His business was keeping the field hands in line. Called the driver, he was a kind of black overseer. And he kept this relatively high position in spite of his attitude. I decided to develop a similar attitude—though with less risk to myself, I thought. I had no intention of taking a whipping if I could avoid it, and I was sure Kevin could protect me if he was nearby when I needed him.
Anyway, I ignored Margaret’s ravings and continued to disgrace her Christian house.
And nothing happened.
Tom Weylin was up early one morning and he caught me stumbling, still half-asleep, out of Kevin’s room. I froze, then made myself relax.
“Morning, Mr. Weylin.”
He almost smiled—came as near to smiling as I’d ever seen. And he winked.
That was all. I knew then that if Margaret got me kicked out, it wouldn’t be for doing a thing as normal as sleeping with my master. And somehow, that disturbed me. I felt almost as though I really was doing something shameful, happily playing whore for my supposed owner. I went away feeling uncomfortable, vaguely ashamed.
Time passed. Kevin and I became more a part of the household, familiar, accepted, accepting. That disturbed me too when I thought about it. How easily we seemed to acclimatize. Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history—adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder. For me, the work could be hard, but was usually more boring than physically wearing. And Kevin complained of boredom, and of having to be sociable with a steady stream of ignorant pretentious guests who visited the Weylin house. But for drop-ins from another century, I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease.
“This could be a great time to live in,” Kevin said once. “I keep thinking what an experience it would be to stay in it—go West and watch the building of the country, see how much of the Old West mythology is true.”
“West,” I said bitterly. “That’s where they’re doing it to the Indians instead of the blacks!”
He looked at me strangely. He had been doing that a lot lately.
Tom Weylin caught me reading in his library one day. I was supposed to be sweeping and dusting. I looked up, found him watching me, closed the book, put it away, and picked up my dust cloth. My hand was shaking.
“You read to my boy,” he said. “I let you do that. But that’s enough reading for you.”
There was a long silence and I said tardily, “Yes, sir.”
“In fact, you don’t even have to be in here. Tell Carrie to do this room.”
“And stay away from the books!”
Hours later in the cookhouse, Nigel asked me to teach him to read.
The request surprised me, then I was ashamed of my surprise. It seemed such a natural request. Years before, Nigel had been chosen to be Rufus’s companion. If Rufus had been a better student, Nigel might already know how to read. As it was, Nigel had learned to do other things. At a husky thirteen, he could shoe a horse, build a cabinet, and plot to escape to Pennsylvania someday. I should have offered to teach him to read long before he asked me.
“You know what’s going to happen to both of us if we get caught?” I asked him.
“You scared?” he asked.
“Yes. But that doesn’t matter. I’ll teach you. I just wanted to be sure you knew what you were getting into.”
He turned away from me, lifted his shirt in the back so that I could see his scars. Then he faced me again. “I know,” he said.
That same day, I stole a book and began to teach him.
And I began to realize why Kevin and I had fitted so easily into this time. We weren’t really in. We were observers watching a show. We were watching history happen around us. And we were actors. ‘wTiie we waited to go home, we humbred the people around us by pretending to be like them. But we were poor actors. We never really got into our roles. We never forgot that we were acting.
This was something I tried to explain to Kevin on the day the children broke through my act. It suddenly became very important that he understand.
The day was miserably hot and muggy, full of flies, mosquitoes and the bad smells of soapmaking, the outhouses, fish someone had caught, unwashed bodies. Everybody smelled, black and white. Nobody washed enough or changed clothes often enough. The slaves worked up a sweat and the whites sweated without working. Kevin and I didn’t have enough clothes or any deodorant at all, so often, we smelled too. Surprisingly, we were beginning to get used to it.
Now we were walking together away from the house and the quarter. We weren’t heading for our oak tree because by then, if Margaret Weylin saw us there, she sent someone with a job for me. Her husband may have stopped her from throwing me out of the house, but he hadn’t stopped her from becoming a worse nuisance than ever. Sometimes Kevin countermanded her orders, claiming that he had work for me. That was how I got a little rest and gave Nigel some extra tutoring. Now, though, we were headed for the woods to spend some time together.
But before we got away from the buildings, we saw a group of slave children gathered around a tree stump. These were the children of the field hands, children too young to be of much use in the fields themselves. Two of them were standing on the wide flat stump while others stood around watching.
“What are they doing?” I asked.
“Playing some game, probably.” Kevin shrugged.
“It looks as though . . .”
“Let’s get closer. I want to hear what they’re saying.”
We approached them from one side so that neither the children on the tree stump nor those on the ground were facing us. They went on with their play as we watched and listened.
“Now here a likely wench,” called the boy on the stump. He gestured toward the girl who stood slightly behind him. “She cook and wash and iron. Come here, gal. Let the folks see you.” He drew the girl up beside him. “She young and strong,” he continued. “She worth plenty money. Two hundred dollars. Who bid two hundred dollars?”
The little girl turned to frown at him. “I’m worth more than two hundred dollars, Sammy!” she protested. “You sold Martha for five hundred dollars!”
“You shut your mouth,” said the boy. “You ain’t supposed to say nothing. When Marse Tom bought Mama and me, we didn’t say nothing.”
I turned and walked away from the arguing children, feeling tired and disgusted. I wasn’t even aware that Kevin was following me until he spoke.
“That’s the game I thought they were playing,” he said. “I’ve seen them at it before. They play at field work too.”
I shook my head. “My God, why can’t we go home? This place is diseased.”
He took my hand. “The kids are just imitating what they’ve seen adults doing,” he said. “They don’t understand . . .”
“They don’t have to understand. Even the games they play are preparing them for their future—and that future will come whether they understand it or not.”
I turned to glare at him and he looked back calmly. It was a what- do-you-want-me-to-do-about-it kind of look. I didn’t say anything because, of course, there was nothing he could do about it.
I shook my head, rubbed my hand across my brow. “Even knowing what’s going to happen doesn’t help,” I said. “I know some of those kids will live to see freedom—after they’ve slaved away their best years. But by the time freedom comes to them, it will be too late. Maybe it’s already too late.”
“Dana, you’re reading too much into a kids’ game.”
“And you’re reading too little into it. Anyway . . . anyway, it’s not their game.”
“No.” He glanced at me. “Look, I won’t say I understand how you feel about this because maybe that’s something I can’t understand. But as you said, you know what’s going to happen. It already has happened. We’re in the middle of history. We surely can’t change it. If anything goes wrong, we might have all we can do just to survive it. We’ve been lucky so far.”
“Maybe.” I drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “But I can’t close my eyes.”
Kevin frowned thoughtfully. “It’s surprising to me that there’s so little to see. Weylin doesn’t seem to pay much attention to what his people do, but the work gets done.”
“You think he doesn’t pay attention. Nobody calls you out to see the whippings.”
“How many whippings?”
“One that I’ve seen. One too goddamn many!”
“One is too many, yes, but still, this place isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. No more work than the people can manage . . .”
“. . . no decent housing,” I cut in. “Dirt floors to sleep on, food so inadequate they’d all be sick if they didn’t keep gardens in what’s supposed to be their leisure time and steal from the cookhouse when Sarah lets them. And no rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason. Kevin, you don’t have to beat people to treat them brutally.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’m not minimizing the wrong that’s being done here. I just. . .”
“Yes you are. You don’t mean to be, but you are.” I sat down against a tall pine tree p ullin g him down beside me. We were in the woods now. Not far to one side of us was a group of Weylin’s slaves who were cutting down trees. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them. I assumed that meant they couldn’t see us either—or hear us over the distance and their own noise. I spoke to Kevin again.
“You might be able to go through this whole experience as an observer,” I said. “I can understand that because most of the time, I’m still an observer. It’s protection. It’s nineteen seventy-six shielding and cushioning eighteen nineteen for me. But now and then, like with the kids’ game, I can’t maintain the distance. I’m drawn all the way into eighteen nineteen, and I don’t know what to do. I ought to be doing something though. I know that.”
“There’s nothing you could do that wouldn’t eventually get you whipped or killed!”
“You. . . you haven’t already done anything, have you?”
“Just started to teach Nigel to read and write,” I said. “Nothing more subversive than that.”
“If Weylin catches you and I’m not around . . .”
“I know. So stay close. The boy wants to learn, and I’m going to teach him .”
He raised one leg against his chest and leaned forward looking at me. “You think someday he’ll write his own pass and head North, don’t you?”
“At least he’ll be able to.”
“I see Weylin was right about educated slaves.”
I turned to look at him.
“Do a good job with Nigel,” he said quietly. “Maybe when you’re gone, he’ll be able to teach others.”
I nodded solemnly.
“I’d bring him in to learn with Rufus if people weren’t so good at listening at doors in that house. And Margaret is always wandering in and out.”
“I know. That’s why I didn’t ask you.” I closed my eyes and saw the children playing their game again. “The ease seemed so frightening,” I said. “Now I see why.”
“The ease. Us, the children … I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
I said good-bye to Rufus the day my teaching finally did get me into trouble. I didn’t know I was saying good-bye, of course—didn’t know what trouble was waiting for me in the cookhouse where I was to meet Nigel. I thought there was trouble enough in Rufus’s room.
I was there reading to him. I had been reading to him regularly since his father caught me that first time. Tom Weylin didn’t want me reading on my own, but he had ordered me to read to his son. Once he had told Rufus in my presence, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself! A nigger can read better than you!”
“She can read better than you too,” Rufus had answered.
His father had stared at him coldly, then ordered me out of the room. For a second I was afraid for Rufus, but Tom Weylin left the room with me.
“Don’t go to him again until I say you can,” he told me.
Four days passed before he said I could. And again he chastised Rufus before me.
“I’m no schoolmaster,” he said, “but I’ll teach you if you can be taught. I’ll teach you respect.”
Rufus said nothing.
“You want her to read to you?”
“Then you got something to say to me.”
“I. . . I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“Read,” said Weylin to me. He turned and left the room.
“What exactly are you supposed to be sorry for?” I asked when Weylin was gone. I spoke very softly.
“Talking back,” said Rufus. “He thinks everything I say is talking back. So I don’t say very much to him.”
“I see.” I opened the book and began to read.
We had finished Robinson Crusoe long ago, and Kevin had chosen a couple of other familiar books from the library. We had already gone through the first, Pilgrim’s Progress. Now we were working on Gulliver’s Travels. Rufus’s own reading was improving slowly under Kevin’s tutoring, but he still enjoyed being read to.
On my last day with him, though, as on a few others, Margaret came in to listen—and to fidget and to fiddle with Rufus’s hair and to pet him while I was reading. As usual, Rufus put his head on her lap and accepted her caresses silently. But today, apparently, that was not enough.
“Are you comfortable?” she asked Rufus when I had been reading for a few moments. “Does your leg hurt?” His leg was not healing as I thought it should have. After nearly two months, he still couldn’t walk.
“I feel all right, Mama,” he said.
Suddenly, Margaret twisted around to face me. “Well?” she demanded.
I had paused in my reading to give her a chance to finish. I lowered my head and began to read again.
About sixty seconds later, she said, “Baby, you hot? You want me to call Virgie up here to fan you?” Virgie was about ten—one of the small house servants often called to fan the whites, run errands for them, carry covered dishes of food between the cookhouse and the main house, and serve the whites at their table.
“I’m all right, Mama,” said Rufus.
“Why don’t you go on?” snapped Margaret at me. “You’re supposed to be here to read, so read!”
I began to read again, biting off the words a little.
“Are you hungry, baby?” asked Margaret a moment later. “Aunt Sarah’s just made a cake. Wouldn’t you like a piece?”
I didn’t stop this time. I just lowered my voice a little and read automatically, tonelessly.
“I don’t know why you want to listen to her,” Margaret said to Rufus. “She’s got a voice like a fly buzzing.”
“I don’t want no cake, Mama.”
“You sure? You ought to see the fine white icing Sarah put on it.”
“I want to hear Dana read, that’s all.”
“Well, there she is, reading. If you can call it that.”
I let my voice grow progressively softer as they talked.
“I can’t hear her with you talking,” Rufus said.
“Baby, all I said was . . .”
“Don’t say nothing!” Rufus took his head off her lap. “Go away and stop bothering me!”
“Rufus!” She sounded hurt rather than angry. And in spite of the situation, this sounded like real disrespect to me. I stopped reading and waited for the explosion. It came from Rufus.
“Go away, Mama!” he shouted. “Just leave me alone!”
“Be still,” she whispered. “Baby, you’ll make yourself sick.”
Rufus turned his head and looked at her. The expression on his face startled me. For once, the boy looked like a smaller replica of his father. His mouth was drawn into a thin straight line and his eyes were coldly hostile. He spoke quietly now as Weylin sometimes did when he was angry. “You’re making me sick, Mama. Get away from me!”
Margaret got up and dabbed at her eyes. “I don’t see how you can talk to me that way,” she said. “Just because of some nigger . . .”
Rufus just looked at her, and finally she left the room.
He relaxed against his pillows and closed his eyes. “I get so tired of her sometimes,” he said.
“Rufe . . . ?”
He opened weary, friendly eyes and looked at me. The anger was gone.
“You’d better be careful,” I said. “What if your mother told your father you talked to her that way?”
“She never tells.” He grinned. “She’ll be back after while to bring me a piece of cake with fine white icing.”
“She was crying.”
“She always cries. Read, Dana.”
“Do you talk to her that way often?”
“I have to, or she won’t leave me alone. Daddy does it too.”
I took a deep breath, shook my head, and plunged back into Gulliver’s Travels.
Later, as I left Rufus, I passed Margaret on her way back to his room. Sure enough, she was carrying a large slice of cake on a plate.
I went downstairs and out to the cookhouse to give Nigel his reading lesson.
Nigel was waiting. He already had our book out of its hiding place and was spelling out words to Carrie. That surprised me because I had offered Carrie a chance to learn with him, and she had refused. Now though, the two of them, alone in the cookhouse, were so involved in what they were doing that they didn’t even notice me until I shut the door. They looked up then, wide-eyed with fear. But they relaxed when they saw it was only me. I went over to them.
“Do you want to learn?” I asked Carrie.
The girl’s fear seemed to return and she glanced at the door.
“Aunt Sarah’s afraid for her to learn,” said Nigel. “Afraid if she learns, she might get caught at it, and then be whipped or sold.”
I lowered my head, sighed. The girl couldn’t talk, couldn’t communicate at all except in the inadequate sign language she had invented—a language even her mother only half-understood. In a more rational society, an ability to write would be of great help to her. But here, the only people who could read her writing would be those who might punish her for being able to write. And Nigel. And Nigel.
I looked from the boy to the girl. “Shall I teach you, Carrie?” If I did and her mother caught me, I might be in more trouble than if Tom Weylin caught me. I was afraid to teach her both for her sake and for mine. Her mother wasn’t a woman I wanted to offend or to hurt, but my conscience wouldn’t let me refuse her if she wanted to learn.
Carrie nodded. She wanted to learn all right. She turned away from us for a moment, did something to her dress, then turned back with a small book in her hand. She too had stolen from the library. Her book was a volume of English history illustrated with a few drawings which she pointed out to me.
I shook my head. “Either hide it or put it back,” I told her. “It’s too hard for you to begin with. The one Nigel and I are using was written for people just starting to learn.” It was an old speller— probably the one Weylin’s first wife had been taught from.
Carrie’s fingers caressed one of the drawings for a moment. Then she put the book back into her dress.
“Now,” I said, “find something to do in case your mother comes in. I can’t teach you in here. We’ll have to find someplace else to meet.”
She nodded, looking relieved, and went over to sweep the other side of the room.
“Nigel,” I said softly when she was gone, “I surprised you when I came in here, didn’t I?”
“Didn’t know it was you.”
“Yes. It could have been Sarah, couldn’t it?”
He said nothing.
“I teach you in here because Sarah said I could, and because the Weylins never seem to come out here.”
“They don’t. They send us out here to tell Sarah what they want. Or to tell her to come to them.”
“So you can learn here, but Carrie can’t. We might have trouble no matter how careful we are, but we don’t have to ask for it.”
“By the way, what does your father think of my teaching you?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t tell him you was.”
Oh God. I took a shaky breath. “But he does know, doesn’t he?”
“Aunt Sarah probably told him. He never said nothing to me though.”
If anything went wrong, there would be blacks to take their revenge on me when the whites finished. When would I ever go home? Would I ever go home? Or if I had to stay here, why couldn’t I just turn these two kids away, turn off my conscience, and be a coward, safe and comfortable?
I took the book from Nigel and handed him my own pencil and a piece of paper from my tablet. “Spelling test,” I said quietly.
He passed the test. Every word right. To my surprise as well as his, I hugged him. He grinned, half-embarrassed, half-pleased. Then I got up and put his test paper into the hot coals of the hearth. It burst into flames and burned completely. I was always careful about that, and I always hated being careful. I couldn’t help contrasting Nigel’s lessons with Rufus’s. And the contrast made me bitter.
I turned to go back to the table where Nigel was waiting. In that moment, Tom Weylin opened the door and stepped in.
It wasn’t supposed to happen. For as long as I had been on the plantation, it had not happened—no white had come into the cookhouse. Not even Kevin. Nigel had just agreed with me that it didn’t happen.
But there stood Tom Weylin staring at me. He lowered his gaze a little and frowned. I realized that I was still holding the old speller. I’d gotten up with it in my hand and I hadn’t put it down. I even had one finger in it holding my place.
I withdrew my finger and let the book close. I was in for a beating now. Where was Kevin? Somewhere inside the house, probably. He might hear me if I screamed—and I would be screaming shortly, anyway. But it would be better if I could just get past Weylin and run into the house.
Weylin stood squarely in front of the door. “Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want you reading!”
I said nothing. Clearly, nothing I could say would help. I felt myself trembling, and I tried to be still. I hoped Weylin couldn’t see.
And I hoped Nigel had had the sense to get the pencil off the table. So far, I was the only one in trouble. If it could just stay that way . . .
“I treated you good,” said Weylin quietly, “and you pay me back by stealing from me! Stealing my books! Reading!”
He snatched the book from me and threw it on the floor. Then he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward the door. I managed to twist around to face Nigel and mouth the words, “Get Kevin.” I saw Nigel stand up.
Then I was out of the cookhouse. Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came—like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin . . .
I screamed, convulsed. Weylin struck again and again, until I couldn’t have gotten up at gunpoint.
I kept trying to crawl away from the blows, but I didn’t have the strength or the co-ordination to get far. I may have been still screaming or just whimpering, I couldn’t tell. All I was really aware of was the pain. I thought Weylin meant to kill me. I thought I would die on the ground there with a mouth full of dirt and blood and a white man cursing and lecturing as he beat me. By then, I almost wanted to die. Anything to stop the pain.
I vomited. And I vomited again because I couldn’t move my face away.
I saw Kevin, blurred, but somehow still recognizable. I saw him running toward me in slow motion, running. Legs churning, arms pumping, yet he hardly seemed to be getting closer.
Suddenly, I realized what was happening and I screamed—I think I screamed. He had to reach me. He had to!
And I passed out.
We never really moved in together, Kevin and I. I had a sardine- can sized apartment on Crenshaw Boulevard and he had a bigger one on Olympic not too far away. We both had books shelved and stacked and boxed and crowding out the furniture. Together, we would never have fitted into either of our apartments. Kevin did suggest once that I get rid of some of my books so that I’d fit into his place.
“You’re out of your mind!” I told him.
“Just some of that book-club stuff that you don’t read.”
We were at my apartment then, so I said, “Let’s go to your place and I’ll help you decide which of your books you don’t read. I’ll even help you throw them out.”
He looked at me and sighed, but he didn’t say anything else. We just sort of drifted back and forth between our two apartments and I got less sleep than ever. But it didn’t seem to bother me as much as it had before. Nothing seemed to bother me much. I didn’t love the agency now, but, on the other hand, I didn’t kick the furniture in the morning anymore, either.
“Quit,” Kevin told me. “I’ll help you out until you find a better job.”
If I hadn’t already loved him by then, that would have done it. But I didn’t quit. The independence the agency gave me was shaky, but it was real. It would hold me together until my novel was finished and I was ready to look for something more demanding. When that time came, I could walk away from the agency not owing anybody. My memory of my aunt and uncle told me that even people who loved me could demand more of me than I could give—and expect their demands to be met simply because I owed them.
I knew Kevin wasn’t that way. The situation was completely different. But I kept my job.
Then about four months after we’d met, Kevin said, “How would you feel about getting married?”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. “You want to marry me?”
“Yeah, don’t you want to marry me?” He grinned. “I’d let you type all my manuscripts.”
I was drying our dinner dishes just then, and I threw the dish towel at him. He really had asked me to do some typing for him three times. I’d done it the first time, grudgingly, not telling him how much I hated typing, how I did all but the final drafts of my stories in longhand. That was why I was with a blue-collar agency instead of a white-collar agency. The second time he asked, though, I told him, and I refused. He was annoyed. The third time when I refused again, he was angry. He said if I couldn’t do him a little favor when he asked, I could leave. So I went home.
When I rang his doorbell the next day after work, he looked surprised. “You came back.”
“Didn’t you want me to?”
“Well. . . sure. Will you type those pages for me now?”
“Damnit, Dana . . . !”
I stood waiting for him to either shut the door or let me in. He let me in.
And now he wanted to marry me.
I looked at him. Just looked, for a long moment. Then I looked away because I couldn’t think while I was watching him. “You, uh . . . don’t have any relatives or anything who’ll give you a hard time about me, do you?” As I spoke, it occurred to me that one of the reasons his proposal surprised me was that we had never talked much about our families, about how his would react to me and mine to him. I hadn’t been aware of us avoiding the subject, but somehow, we’d never gotten around to it. Even now, he looked surprised.
“The only close relative I’ve got left is my sister,” he said. “She’s been trying to marry me off and get me ‘settled down’ for years. She’ll love you, believe me.”
I didn’t, quite. “I hope she does,” I said. “But I’m afraid my aunt and uncle won’t love you.”
He turned to face me. “No?”
I shrugged. “They’re old. Sometimes their ideas don’t have very much to do with what’s going on now. I think they’re still waiting for me to come to my senses, move back home, and go to secretarial school.”
“Are we going to get married?”
I went to him. “You know damn well we are.”
“You want me to go with you when you talk to your aunt and uncle?”
“No. Go talk to your sister if you want to. Brace yourself though. She might surprise you.”
She did. And braced or not, he wasn’t ready for his sister’s reaction.
“I thought I knew her,” he told me afterward. “I mean, I did know her. But I guess we’ve lost touch more than I thought.”
“What did she say?”
“That she didn’t want to meet you, wouldn’t have you in her house—or me either if I married you.” He leaned back on the shabby purple sofa that had come with my apartment and looked up at me. “And she said a lot of other things. You don’t want to hear them.”
“I believe you.”
He shook his head. “The thing is, there’s no reason for her to react this way. She didn’t even believe the garbage she was handing me—or didn’t used to. It’s as though she was quoting someone else. Her husband, probably. Pompous little bastard. I used to try to like him for her sake.”
“Her husband is prejudiced?”
“Her husband would have made a good Nazi. She used to joke about it—though never when he could hear.”
“But she married him.”
“Desperation. She would have married almost anybody.” He smiled a little. “In high school, she and this friend of hers spent all their time together because neither of them could get a boy friend. The other girl was black and fat and homely, and Carol was white and fat and homely. Half the time, we couldn’t figure out whether she lived at the girl’s house or the girl lived with us. My friends knew them both, but they were too young for them—Carol’s three years older than I am. Anyway, she and this girl sort of comforted each other and fell off their diets together and planned to go to the same college so they wouldn’t have to break up the partnership. The other girl really went, but Carol changed her mind and trained to become a dental assistant. She wound up marrying the first dentist she ever worked for—a smug little reactionary twenty years older than she was. Now she lives in a big house in La Canada and quotes cliched bigotry at me for wanting to marry you.”
I shrugged, not knowing what to say. I-told-you-so? Hardly. “My mother’s car broke down in La Canada once,” I told him. “Three people called the police on her while she was waiting for my uncle to come and get her. Suspicious character. Five-three, she was. About a hundred pounds. Real dangerous.”
“Sounds like the reactionary moved to the right town.”
“I don’t know, that was back in nineteen sixty just before my mother died. Things may have improved by now.”
“What did your aunt and uncle say about me, Dana?”
I looked at my hands, thinking about all they had said, paring it down wearily. “I think my aunt accepts the idea of my marrying you because any children we have will be light. Lighter than I am, anyway. She always said I was a little too ‘highly visible.’ ”
He stared at me.
“You see? I told you they were old. She doesn’t care much for white people, but she prefers light-skinned blacks. Figure that out. Anyway, she ‘forgives’ me for you. But my uncle doesn’t. He’s sort of taken this personally.”
“He . . . well, he’s my mother’s oldest brother, and he was like a father to me even before my mother died because my father died when I was a baby. Now . . . it’s as though I’ve rejected him. Or at least that’s the way he feels. It bothered me, really. He was more hurt than mad. Honestly hurt. I had to get away from him .”
“But, he knew you’d marry some day. How could a thing as natural as that be a rejection?”
“I’m marrying you.” I reached up and twisted a few strands of his straight gray hair between my fingers. “He wants me to marry someone like him—someone who looks like him. A black man.”
“I was always close to him. He and my aunt wanted kids, and they couldn’t have any. I was their kid.”
“Now . . . well, they have a couple of apartment houses over in Pasadena—small places, but nice. The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will them to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into the white hands. I think that was the worst thing he could think of to do to me. Or he thought it was the worst thin g.”
“Oh hell,” muttered Kevin. “Look, are you sure you still want to marry me?”
“Yes. I wish. . . never mind, just yes. Definitely, yes.”
“Then let’s go to Vegas and pretend we haven’t got relatives.”
So we drove to Las Vegas, got married, and gambled away a few dollars. When we came home to our bigger new apartment, we found a gift—a blender—from my best friend, and a check from The Atlantic waiting for us. One of my stories had finally made it.
I was lying flat on my stomach, my face pressed uncomfortably against something cold and hard. My body below the neck rested on something slightly softer. Slowly, I became aware of sunlight and shadow, of shapes.
I lifted my head, started to sit up, and my back suddenly caught fire. I fell forward, hit my head hard on the bare floor of the bathroom. My bathroom. I was home.
I listened. I could have looked around, but I didn’t want to.
I got up, aware that my eyes were streaming muddy tears, aware of the pain. God, the pain! For several seconds, all I could do was lean against the wall and bear it.
Slowly, I discovered that I wasn’t as weak as I had thought. In fact, by the time I was fully conscious, I wasn’t weak at all. It was only the pain that made me move slowly, carefully, like a woman three times my age.
I could see now that I had been lying with my head in the bathroom and my body in the bedroom. Now I went into the bathroom and turned on the water to fill the tub. Warm water. I don’t think I could have stood hot. Or cold.
My blouse was stuck to my back. It was cut to pieces, really, but the pieces were stuck to me. My back was cut up pretty badly too from what I could feel. I had seen old photographs of the backs of people who had been slaves. I could remember the scars, thick and ugly. Kevin had always told me how smooth my skin was . . .
I took off my pants and shoes and got into the tub still wearing my blouse. I would let the water soften it until I could ease it from my back.
In the tub, I sat for a long while without moving, without thinking, listening for what I knew I would not hear elsewhere in the house. The pain was a friend. Pain had never been a friend to me before, but now it kept me still. It forced reality on me and kept me sane.
But Kevin . . .
I leaned forward and cried into the dirty pink water. The skin of my back stretched agonizingly, and the water got pinker.
And it was all pointless. There was nothing I could do. I had no control at all over anything. Kevin might as well be dead. Abandoned in 1819, Kevin was dead. Decades dead, perhaps a century dead.
Maybe I would be called back again, and maybe he would still be there waiting for me and maybe only a few years would have passed for him, and maybe he would be all right . . . But what had he said once about going West watching history happen?
By the time my wounds had softened and my rag of a blouse had come unstuck from them, I was exhausted. I felt the weakness now that I hadn’t felt before. I got out of the tub and dried myself as best I could, then stumbled into the bedroom and fell across the bed. In spite of the pain, I fell asleep at once.
The house was dark when I awoke, and the bed was empty except for me. I had to remember why all over again. I got up stiffly, painfully, and went to find something that would make me sleep again quickly. I didn’t want to be awake. I barely wanted to be alive. Kevin had gotten a prescription for some pills once when he was having trouble sleeping.
I found what was left of them. I was about to take two of them when I got a look at myself in the medicine cabinet mirror. My face had swollen and was puffy and old-looking. My hair was in tangled patches, brown with dirt and matted with blood. In my semihys- terical state earlier, I had not thought to wash it.
I put the pills down and climbed back into the tub. This time I turned on the shower and somehow managed to wash my hair. Raising my arms hurt. Bending forward hint. The shampoo that got into my cuts hurt. I started slowly, wincing, grimacing. Finally I got angry and moved vigorously in spite of the pain.
When I looked passably human again, I took some aspirins. They didn’t help much, but I was sane enough now to know that I had something to do before I could afford to sleep again.
I needed a replacement for my lost canvas bag. Something that didn’t look too good for a “nigger” to be carrying. I finally settled on an old denim gym bag that I’d made and used back in high school. It was tough and roomy like the canvas bag, and faded enough to look properly shabby.
I would have put in a long dress this time if I’d had one. All I had, though, were a couple of bright filmy evening dresses that would have drawn attention to me, and, under the circumstances, made me look ridiculous. Best to go on being the woman who dressed like a man.
I rolled up a couple of pairs of jeans and stuffed them into the bag. Then shoes, shirts, a wool sweater, comb, brush, tooth paste and tooth brush—Kevin and I had really missed those—two large cakes of soap, my washcloth, the bottle of aspirins—if Rufus called me while my back was sore, I would need them—my knife. The knife had come back with me because I happened to be wearing it in a makeshift leather sheath at my ankle. I didn’t know whether to be glad or not that I hadn’t had a chance to use it against Weylin. I might have killed him. I had been angry enough, frightened enough, humiliated enough to try. Then if Rufus called me again, I would have to answer for the killing. Or maybe Kevin would have to answer for it. I was suddenly very glad that I had left Weylin alive. Kevin was in for enough trouble. And, too, when I saw Rufus again—if I saw him again—I would need his help. I wouldn’t be likely to get it if I had killed his father—even a father he didn’t like.
I stuffed another pencil, pen, and scratch pad into the bag. I was slowly emptying Kevin’s desk. All my things were still packed. And I found a compact paperback history of slavery in America that might be useful. It listed dates and events that I should be aware of, and it contained a map of Maryland.
The bag was too full to close completely by the time everything was in, but I tied it shut with its own rope drawstring, and tied the drawstring around my arm. I couldn’t have stood anything tied around my waist.
Then, incongruously, I was hungry. I went to the kitchen and found half-a-box of raisins and a full can of mixed nuts. To my surprise, I finished both, then slept again easily.
It was morning when I awoke, and I was still at home. My back hurt whenever I moved. I managed to spray it with an ointment Kevin had used for sunburn. The whip lacerations hurt like bums. The ointment cooled them and seemed to help. I had the feeling I should have used something stronger, though. Heaven knew what kind of infection you could get from a whip kept limber with oil and blood. Tom Weylin had ordered brine thrown onto the back of the field hand he had whipped. I could remember the man screaming as the solution hit him. But his wounds had healed without infection.
As I thought of the field hand, I felt strangely disoriented. For a moment, I thought Rufus was calling me again. Then I realized that I wasn’t really dizzy—only confused. My memory of a field hand being whipped suddenly seemed to have no place here with me at home.
I came out of the bathroom into the bedroom and looked around. Home. Bed—without canopy—dresser, closet, electric light, television, radio, electric clock, books. Home. It didn’t have anything to do with where I had been. It was real. It was where I belonged.
I put on a loose dress and went out to the front yard. The tiny blue-haired woman who lived next door noticed me and wished me a good morning. She was on her hands and knees digging in her flower garden and obviously enjoying herself. She reminded me of Margaret Weylin who also had flowers. I had heard Margaret’s guests compliment her on her flowers. But, of course, she didn’t take care of them herself . . .
Today and yesterday didn’t mesh. I felt almost as strange as I had after my first trip back to Rufus—caught between his home and mine.
There was a Volvo parked across the street and there were powerlines overhead. There were palm trees and paved streets. There was the bathroom I had just left. Not a hole-in-the-ground privy toilet that you had to hold your breath to go into, but a bathroom.
I went back into the house and turned the radio on to an all-news station. There, eventually, I learned that it was Friday, June 11, 1976. I’d gone away for nearly two months and come back yesterday —the same day I left home. Nothing was real.
Kevin could be gone for years even if I went after him today and brought him back tonight.
I found a music station and turned the radio up loud to drown out my thi nkin g.
The time passed and I did more unpacking, stopping often, taking too many aspirins. I began to bring some order to my own office. Once I sat down at my typewriter and tried to write about what had happened, made about six attempts before I gave up and threw them all away. Someday when this was over, if it was ever over, maybe I would be able to write about it.
I called my favorite cousin in Pasadena—my father’s sister’s daughter—and had her buy groceries for me. I told her I was sick and Kevin wasn’t around. Something about my tone must have reached her. She didn’t ask any questions.
I was still afraid to leave the house, walking or driving. Driving, I could easily kill myself, and the car could kill other people if Rufus called me from it at the wrong time. Walking, I could get dizzy and fall while crossing the street. Or I could fall on the sidewalk and attract attention. Someone could come to help me—a cop, anyone. Then I could be guilty of taking someone else back with me and stranding them.
My cousin was a good friend. She took one look at me and recommended a doctor she knew. She also advised me to send the police after Kevin. She assumed that my bruises were his work. But when I swore her to silence, I knew she would be silent. She and I had grown up keeping each other’s secrets.
“I never thought you’d be fool enough to let a man beat you,” she said as she left. She was disappointed in me, I think.
“I never thought I would either,” I whispered when she was gone.
I waited inside the house with my denim bag always nearby. The days passed slowly, and sometimes I thought I was waiting for something that just wasn’t going to happen. But I went on waiting.
I read books about slavery, fiction and nonfiction. I read everything I had in the house that was even distantly related to the subject —even Gone With the Wind, or part of it. But its version of happy darkies in tender loving bondage was more than I could stand.
Then, somehow, I got caught up in one of Kevin’s World War II books—a book of excerpts from the recollections of concentration camp survivors. Stories of beatings, starvation, filth, disease, torture, every possible degradation. As though the Germans had been trying to do in only a few years what the Americans had worked at for nearly two hundred.
The books depressed me, scared me, made me stuff Kevin’s sleeping pills into my bag. Like the Nazis, ante bellum whites had known quite a bit about torture—quite a bit more than I ever wanted to learn.
I had been at home for eight days when the dizziness finally came again. I didn’t know whether to curse it for my own sake or welcome it for Kevin’s—not that it mattered what I did.
I went to Rufus’s time fully clothed, carrying my denim bag, wearing my knife. I arrived on my knees because of the dizziness, but I was immediately alert and wary.
I was in the woods either late in the day or early in the morning. The sun was low in the sky and surrounded as I was by trees, I had no reference point to tell me whether it was rising or setting. I could see a stream not far from me, running between tall trees. Off to my opposite side was a woman, black, young—just a girl, really—with her dress tom down the front. She was holding it together as she watched a black man and a white man fighting.
The white man’s red hair told me who he must be. His face was already too much of a mess to tell me. He was losing his fight—had already lost it. The man he was fighting was his size with the same slender build, but in spite of the black man’s slenderness, he looked wiry and strong. He had probably been conditioned by years of hard work. He didn’t seem much affected when Rufus hit him, but he was killing Rufus.
Then it occurred to me that he might really be doing just that- killing the only person who might be able to help me find Kevin. Killing my ancestor. What had happened here seemed obvious. The girl, her torn dress. If everything was as it seemed, Rufus had earned his beating and more. Maybe he had grown up to be even worse than I had feared. But no matter what he was, I needed him alive—for Kevin’s sake and for my own.
I saw him fall, get up, and be knocked down again. This time, he got up more slowly, but he got up. I had a feeling he’d done a lot of getting up. He wouldn’t be doing much more.
I went closer, and the woman saw me. She called out something I didn’t quite understand, and the man turned his head to look at her. Then he followed her gaze to me. Just then, Rufus hit him on the jaw.
Surprisingly, the black man stumbled backward, almost fell. But Rufus was too tired and hurt to follow up his advantage. The black man hit him one more solid blow, and Rufus collapsed. There was no question of his getting up this time. He was out cold.
As I approached, the black man reached down and caught Rufus by the hair as though to hit him again. I stepped up to the man quickly. “What will they do to you if you kill him?” I said.
The man twisted around to glare at me.
“What will they do to the woman if you kill him?” I asked.
That seemed to reach him. He released Rufus and stood straight to face me. “Who’s going to say I did anything to him?” His voice was low and threatening, and I began to wonder whether I might wind up joining Rufus unconscious on the ground.
I made myself shrug. “You’ll say yourself what you did if they ask you right. So will the woman.”
“What are you going to say?”
“Not a word if I can help it. But . . . I’m asking you not to kill him.”
“You belong to him?”
“No. It’s just that he might know where my husband is. And I might be able to get him to tell me.”
“Your husband . . . ?” He looked me over from head to foot. “Why you go ’round dressed like a man?”
I said nothing. I was so tired of answering that question that I wished I had risked going out to buy a long dress. I looked down at Rufus’s bloody face and said, “If you leave him here now, it will be a long while before he can send anyone after you. You’ll have time to get away.”
“You think you’d want him alive if you was her?” He gestured toward the woman.
“Is she your wife?”
He was like Sarah, holding himself back, not killing in spite of anger I could only imagine. A lifetime of conditioning could be overcome, but not easily. I looked at the woman. “Do you want your husband to kill this man?”
She shook her head and I saw that her face was swollen on one side. “While ago, I could have killed him myself,” she said. “Now . . . Isaac, let’s just get away!”
“Get away and leave her here?” He stared at me, suspicious and hostile. “She sure don’t talk like no nigger I ever heard. Talks like she been mighty close with the white folks—for a long time.”
“She talks like that ’cause she comes from a long way off,” said the girl.
I looked at her in surprise. Tall and slender and dark, she was. A little like me. Maybe a lot like me.
“You’re Dana, aren’t you?” she asked.
“Yes . . . how did you know?”
“He told me about you.” She nudged Rufus with her foot. “He used to talk about you all the time. And I saw you once, when I was little.”
I nodded. “You’re Alice, then. I thought so.”
She nodded and rubbed her swollen face. “I’m Alice.” And she looked at the black man with pride. “Alice Jackson now.”
I tried to see her again as the thin, frightened child I remembered— the child I had seen only two months before. It was impossible. But I should have been used to the impossible by now—just as I should have been used to white men preying on black women. I had Weylin as my example, after all. But somehow, I had hoped for better from Rufus. I wondered whether the girl was pregnant with Hagar already.
“My name was Greenwood when you saw me last,” Alice continued. “I married Isaac last year . . . just before Mama died.”
“She died then?” I caught myself visualizing a woman my age dying, even though I knew that was wrong. But still, the woman must have died fairly young. “I’m sorry,” I said. “She tried to help me.”
“She helped lot of folks,” said Isaac. “She used to treat this little no-good bastard better than his own people treated him.” He kicked Rufus hard in the side.
I winced and wished I could move Rufus out of his reach. “Alice,”
I said, “wasn’t Rufus a friend of yours? I mean … did he just grow out of the friendship or what?”
“Got to where he wanted to be more friendly than I did,” she said. “He tried to get Judge Holman to sell Isaac South to keep me from marrying him.”
“You’re a slave?” I said to Isaac, surprised. “My God, you’d better get out of here.”
Isaac gave Alice a look that said very clearly, You talk too much. Alice answered the look.
“Isaac, she’s all right. She got a whipping once for teaching a slave how to read. Tom Weylin was the one whipped her.”
“I want to know what she’s going to do when we leave,” said Isaac.
“I’m going to stay with Rufus,” I told him. “When he comes to, I’m going to help him home—as slowly as possible. I’m not going to tell him where you went because I won’t know.”
Isaac looked at Alice, and she tugged at his arm. “Let’s go!” she urged.
“But . . ”
“You can’t whip everybody! Let’s go!”
He seemed on the verge of going when I said, “Isaac, if you want me to, I can write you a pass. It doesn’t have to be to where you’re really going, but it might help you if you’re stopped.”
He looked at me with no trust at all, then turned and walked away without answering.
Alice hesitated, spoke softly to me. “Your man went away,” she said. “He waited a long time for you, then he left.”
“Where did he go?”
“Somewhere North. I don’t know. Mister Rufe knows. You got to be careful, though. Mister Rufe gets mighty crazy sometimes.”
She turned and followed Isaac, leaving me alone with the unconscious Rufus—alone to wonder where she and Isaac would go. North to Pennsylvania? I hoped so. And where had Kevin gone? Why had he gone anywhere? What if Rufus wouldn’t help me find him? Or what if I didn’t stay in this time long enough to find him? Why couldn’t he have waited. . . ?