Varina, p.22

Varina, page 22



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  V said, After things settle, the land will still be worth something.

  Elgin bristled and said, Who’d be buying? Nobody, that’s who. Nobody’s got money. And whatever happens, I ain’t hoeing cotton. Or beans and corn and collards neither. Or milking cows. I don’t plan to live in a world without slaves. Besides, we made more money breeding slaves to sell than growing cotton. So maybe I’ll go to Brazil where the laws keep making sense. These people here want to think I’m responsible for them, but the truth is purely the other way around.

  V looked at Belle, and Belle said, I wet-nursed him from the day he was born until he turned three. It’s hard for me to believe he hates me, and hard to hate him.

  —Not hard for me, Ryland said, in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear.

  Elgin said, Shut the hell up.

  THE CHILDREN DOZED IN FRONT OF THE FIRE, piled together in a nest of quilts. Except Jimmie Limber, who sat next to V, leaning a shoulder into her hip, a hand on her leg as she rubbed his back, cupped the side of his thin neck in her palm. He watched the freed children intently, and they looked back at him the same way, curious and confused.

  Belle said what they were all thinking, Whose baby is he?

  —Jimmie’s mine, V said. He favors me a little.

  —Hmm? Belle said.

  Very quickly Ellen said, Nobody knows who his mother was. We found him taking a whipping on the street in Richmond. So Miss V moved him in with her children. Been living there for a couple of years.

  —Polishing their shoes and fetching things? Elgin said. Or more like a pet?

  —Not either one, Ellen said. They all slept in the nursery. Played and had classes. All the children together.

  —Good Lord, Elgin said. You think you’ve heard every manner of shit there is to hear, and then some crazy bitch comes up with something new.

  Ryland rose slowly, eased his pistol out of his belt, and held it down by his leg.

  He said, Little man, that kind of talk ain’t at all Christian.

  V looked at Burton and Burton looked at Ryland and said very low, We can’t afford to go around killing people for every stupid thing they say. We’ve all agreed on that. Stay calm.

  Ryland put his pistol back in his belt and said, Now and then, though, it’s the exception that proves the rule. He said it very bright, trying to hold the corners of his mouth level.

  Burton announced to the room, We need some sleep, and all of us will sleep right here by the fire. One of us will be awake all the time. I’ll take the first watch.

  —You think you’re going to put a watch over us? In my own house? Elgin said.

  Delrey said, No judgment as to need. But we’re going to do it the way we’re going to do it.

  He raised the angle of his shotgun barrel about an inch and said, I bet we all need to visit the outhouse now that the lightning’s quit. I’ll stand guard outside and make sure everybody’s safe.

  AFTER THEY’D ALL GATHERED back around the fire, Elgin said, I’d been wondering how in hell y’all up in Richmond managed to lose the war. Then you show up on my doorstep and it’s clear as day. Worthless people.

  —Could have been they outnumbered us, Ryland said. But all the way down here, I’ve been thinking maybe we had it coming.

  —Had what coming?

  —Losing, Ryland said.

  —Say that again, Elgin said.

  —You heard me.

  —I don’t like to kill people unless I’m sure they need it. So say it one more time and I will lay you down.

  Ry said, You’ve not ever worn a uniform or killed anybody, and you’re not going to start now. Have you even had your first drink of liquor?

  The boy reached to his waist and pulled out a little hidden Derringer. Silver-plated with pearl grips, three-inch over-under barrels.

  Ryland and Bristol both laughed at him when he held it out.

  V said, Boys, stop it right now. And you, Elgin, don’t say another word.

  —I don’t let women run me, Elgin said.

  He kept his little pistol leveled at Ryland.

  Ry couldn’t pass up a jab. He said, Except apparently that woman over there is not long since finished nursing you. Diapering too probably. He gestured toward Belle, hovering nearby.

  She said, Mr. Elgin, don’t pay attention to their rough talk.

  Burton Harrison stood and spread his hands and said, Wait.

  V stood too and said, Enough.

  And then Elgin twitched a finger, almost a nervous impulse, and an awful instant of time later, Ryland was gone for good.

  Bristol stood there, with a look of stunned recognition on his face at just the stupidity of it, just the damn overwhelming thoughtless ignorance and meanness and darkness of humans.

  Ryland lay with a hole burned in the weave of his left jacket lapel, all the light gone out of him. Whatever fills the bloody mess inside our heads—the details that make us who we are, those threads of nerve and strange ugly tissues that make us different from each other—Ryland’s had quit working, shut down all at once. He’d transformed in a matter of seconds from being so busy living—fired up and blazing and tiring people down to a nub most days—to being a dead pile of meat and bones and gristle without a spark. Three or four swings of a pendulum and he was all gone.

  Elgin shifted his little pistol slightly toward Bristol and sort of smirked.

  In the instant it took Ryland to die, Bristol didn’t have time to think or to choose, as if something in him beyond thought didn’t wish to occupy the same world as Elgin.

  Bristol drew his navy pistol and pulled two shots faster than the mind could register. One hole in the forehead and an ugly red mess blowing out the back onto the plaster wall. One heartbeat, and all that bragging falsehood Ryland made up on the rail platform in Richmond became prophecy.

  Elgin wasn’t surprised any more than a candle flame is surprised when you lick your fingers and pinch it out. Light, then dark. He fell as if he had just suddenly decided to lie down. But he was dead before he hit the floor.

  And before Bristol even recognized what he’d done, V wheeled and slapped him hard. A roundhouse blow to the side of his head. He still held his smoking pistol aimed toward the space the dead boy had occupied before collapsing. Ryland lay peaceful ten feet away as if asleep, and Bristol looked too stunned to form tears in his eyes.

  V looked at the two dead boys and back at Bristol and began to view that arrangement of bodies anew, as a feature of her current world needing to be understood.

  She said, I’m sorry I did that.

  She tried to hug Bristol, but he wouldn’t stand still for it.

  All the children, both groups, either cried and wailed or were too terrified to move. Belle’s people hushed their children and put themselves, their bodies, between their children and V’s people. Billy had burrowed up under the pile of quilts and lay sobbing. Maggie still had her eyes closed and held her hands over her ears, and Jeffy and Jimmie stared at the bodies in disbelief. V and Ellen and Burton got to their knees and hugged the children and patted heads and tried to turn the little boys away, but Jimmie and Jeffy kept looking back at the bodies and the blood. Delrey stayed where he was, with the shotgun ready and watching everybody closely.

  When it seemed like the shooting was done, Belle went to Elgin and touched his neck where the pulse would have been, and then she took an indigo kerchief from her apron pocket and spread it over his face.

  —What are we going to do now? Belle said.

  —Sunrise, new world, Bristol said.

  DAWN JUST A HAZE TO THE EAST, V and Ellen carried the sleeping children out to the ambulance in blankets while Delrey tacked and harnessed the horses.

  Burton and Bristol dug two holes in the plantation cemetery. No boxes, just red rectangles cut deep in Georgia clay. Wide pine floor puncheons for markers, names and dates scratched by knifepoint. When they finished digging and had the bodies settled, Belle and her people came out of the house and stood over their lit
tle dead master before he got shoveled under. V came from the ambulance and stood with Bristol and Burton.

  Belle looked down in the hole at Elgin, arms crossed and the kerchief over his face. She turned to Bristol and said, I think you ought to say some words.

  —You knew him since he was a baby, Bristol said. You should say something in his favor.

  —Not my place.

  Bristol turned to Burton, and Burton lifted his shoulders a fraction. V looked Bristol in the eye and gripped his wrist a second and nodded yes.

  Bristol stepped up to the hole and said, I didn’t have one thing against you, Elgin. All we wanted was to get out of the rain. We didn’t know this place was anything but a burnt plantation. We shared our food. I’d made it through my part of the war without killing or getting killed. And then you shot Ry for no reason but ignorant pride. I’ll never forgive you, and I’ll try every day to forget you. But I probably won’t be able to. You don’t deserve to be remembered one minute past right now. I’m done talking, and if anybody here wants to argue, this is the time.

  Belle’s people looked at each other, and then Belle said, I wish you’d finish by saying those words you said last night.

  —New world coming? Burton said.

  —Yes, Belle said. That’ll do.

  The freed slaves turned and walked back toward the burned plantation house.

  Delrey left the horses and walked over to the graves and removed his hat. Ryland rested chalky in the bottom of his hole. Bristol climbed down and X-ed Ryland’s forearms over his chest and heaped clean-smelling pine boughs to cover him.

  When Bristol finished all the tasks except the shoveling, V said, Do you want to say something?

  Bristol said, Ry’s gone. And what he’d want would be for me to tell a joke. But I don’t know anything funny enough right now.

  Bristol patted palm to chest three times and started shoveling. When he had a mound of red Georgia clay he pitched the shovel away and walked to the horses and wagons. V walked with him. She said, Did you mean that? About worrying you’ll remember that boy forever?

  Bristol said, I won’t even know whether I meant it for a long time. But right now I’m more afraid your children will dream all their lives about the killings. Pictures of me with a gun in my hand triggering the last shot.

  V touched his shoulder and said, They’re so young. I’ll shape their memories so last night won’t be anything but thunder and lightning and a warm place in a nest of quilts by the fire.

  The fugitives headed on down the road toward Terra Florida, escaping to its wildness and freedom. Ryland’s mule trailed on a hemp line from the back of the wagon, trotting easy without a burden.

  * * *

  James watches the landscape flow across the railcar window, left to right. A sprinkle of rain beads on the glass and deepens the greens of grass and leaves.

  He looks over his notes from the day, and at the end he writes,

  I don’t even know whether past feelings and memories deserve any respect at all. Maybe they’re no more important than a pinch of pain from an injury decades old. Feelings and memories rise and pass every day, like the weather. Only important at the moment. Why not just notice them and let them go?

  Fifth Sunday

  Saratoga Springs

  —I HAVE QUESTIONS TOO, V SAYS. SUCH AS, WHERE DID YOU go after Miss Botume? You were with her . . . what? A year? Two years? What happens after this?

  She turns to the end of the chapter called “Jimmie” in the blue book and reads, Finally the little boy drifted into Auntie Gwynne’s Home. This noble woman placed him where he was well trained in all ways, having the advantage of school, as well as a good practical education, until he was old enough to support himself.

  —Drifted? V says. Like a tiny hobo carrying his bindle on a stick over his shoulder?

  —I doubt it.

  —So how was it? She dropped you off at an orphanage and said, So long? Or just found someone already going that direction to give you a ride? I don’t imagine she was under arrest by the Federal government at the time she let you go. Or had a gun to her head.

  James waits a moment for her to settle. He draws a couple of breaths and then tells V he hardly remembers Auntie Gwynne’s orphanage, having been there only briefly. Before he found Miss Botume’s book, he couldn’t even recall the name of the place. For two years previous to arriving there, his world had changed radically month by month. Places and people blur. That orphanage rests in his mind as one picture—a room filled with lots of white children. That’s all.

  But he does remember that soon he went to Thompson Island Farm School, a mile out in Boston Harbor. Wealthy people—particularly Universalists and Unitarians—paid for it as a way of making the world a little better. Not all the boys were orphans, so some went home for holidays. The school aimed to help those who needed help, but the boys had to be smart and promising and willing. The main building, a big white house, sat on an open hill looking over the water. They could see the city from the third-floor windows, but it felt like looking at the moon through a telescope—interesting to observe, but not your world. His world was the island, and most of his memories begin there.

  He took classes in literature, mathematics, geography, history, logic, and science. And along with studying, all the boys worked for the good of their little community. The younger boys had jobs around the big house, so James started out helping in the kitchen and in the garden. Even now, he still grows a small backyard garden with greens in the cool months, tomatoes and squash and beans in the summer. All the boys lived on the third floor in big rooms like he remembers in Richmond with V’s children, except more beds and closer together. Lots of rules about laundry and personal cleanliness.

  —Good, V says. Boys that age can never wash too often.

  James tells her that the school had a big brass band. He played bugle. Sometimes they put on their uniforms and went out to the beach to greet passenger ships entering Boston Harbor, trumpeting marches to celebrate a successful crossing of the Atlantic. Passengers stood at the rails and waved handkerchiefs as they passed.

  The island spanned enough land—good dirt—to grow orchards, hayfields, berry patches. The older boys each had a little flower garden to tend, and spring through fall, they kept the big house bright with reds and yellows and whites. Fat clams grew on the sandbars, and boys sometimes went out with buckets and spades to bring back dinner. Older boys lived in a sort of village of tiny white cottages with green shutters. They elected their own mayor and held community meetings to decide how to deal with problems, how to punish boys who wouldn’t work or who pilfered. One large room in the main building was the library, and James spent a lot of rainy Sundays in there. There were six long study tables, and the books were mostly donated, some quite old. He liked brown antiquated travel books describing trips that weren’t possible anymore—explorations of the Western Hemisphere back when much of it was still unmapped. Pretty days of spring, summer, and fall, he spent all his free time outside, either walking the island or sitting under a tree with a book.

  —The headmaster and staff searched out our aptitudes, James says. And when I reached thirteen, I began teaching reading and arithmetic and geography to the youngest boys. In some form, it’s what I’ve done ever since.

  Pretty days in late summer, though, he always volunteered for haying—forking the cut and dried hay onto an enormous wagon until the heap stood two shaggy stories tall, and then riding on top back to the barn, balancing on the shifting load, the fragrance of sun on cut grass swelling all around—itchy from the hay down your shirt, but feeling strong and tired and satisfied with the work.

  He also tells her about winters when the wind blew in from the North Atlantic and the snow came sideways against the windows and the big house swayed and vibrated in the storms. How one winter the harbor froze solid and some of them walked over the ice to the shore, a mile away.

  —So, not a bad place, V says.

  —A very good pla
ce. A good school, plenty of teaching and learning, but also plenty of physical work. The boys learned how to take care of the buildings and the animals and the gardens and orchards. You were putting your food on the table. Literally. Not working to grow somebody else’s food, growing your own. Your responsibility, your work, your enjoyment. We sold surplus from the gardens and orchards, and the money went back into the school for our benefit and for boys to come. You felt part of something. Out of a hundred boys, fewer than a dozen weren’t white, but that rarely mattered. Teachers judged us by how much we learned and how much we contributed to the work, not on color. Boys who didn’t follow that same practice came and went quickly. Of course the teachers who ran the school and the rich benefactors who paid for it were idealists, and if you said that all of us—white and black—may have finished school at eighteen with a distorted and naive sense of the world off the island, you’d be right.

  WHEN HE FINISHES HIS STORY, James says, I know your feeling about taking notes as we talk. But I need to write something down. It’s about me, not you.

  —Please, V says. Scribble.

  James opens his notebook and writes,

  The island was a separate place, situated partway between America and the moon. Some clear nights out with the telescope—moon full or gibbous—I felt about equidistant between the sharp-edged craters and the sparkling lights of America across the harbor. I knew that off the island very particular rules and laws and customs about skin color and blood degree applied, that the entire stretch of country from ocean to ocean was a strange place with a very strict borderline, and that I didn’t exactly fit on either side of it.

  Then across the bottom of the page—in a larger, more swooping hand—he writes:

  The island felt like home to a degree I’ve never experienced before or since.

  After he caps his pen, V says, You’re not even going to read it to me?

  —Revision first. It makes us all better than we are. For now, tell me about our capture.

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