Varina, p.6

Varina, page 6



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  At breakfast the next morning, her first words of the day were, About ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re more awful than any animal you can name. But, in that final decimal, we’re so beautiful.

  Jeff said, You look tired. Bad dreams again?

  THE BRIERS DID NOT BELONG to V’s father. He leased it. The same thing with the few house slaves. WB Howell’s theories of financial management were simple—why tie money to property when he could invest it in ill-conceived business schemes? WB was the youngest son of an eight-term New Jersey governor back when they held elections every year, and his money came mostly from inheritance and marriage to V’s mother and from her very comfortable Mississippi family. Almost none of WB’s money came from successful speculation, and none whatsoever came from actual work.

  At age twenty, WB recognized that his pathways to success might not be so wide open in New Jersey or New York as he had grown up expecting. Older brothers stood in his way, and family politics tended unfavorably. After little more than a flicker of thought, he decided the likeliest place to realize his full potential was the American Southwest. Mississippi, Louisiana. Some town on the big river where he couldn’t help but be the smartest man around. A place still whiffing the last tinge of lawless frontier. And Natchez—being to his understanding the fanciest town all the way from New Orleans to the frozen North where the great brown river arose—he chose it for home.

  Sadly, contrary to WB’s hopes, he was not the smartest man in Natchez. In fact, those rubes picked his carcass clean. After marrying well—with a dowry of several thousand acres of land and nearly a hundred slaves, which he fairly quickly sold to raise investment cash—he spent nearly twenty years losing everything in countless failed business schemes. And then, after milking dry every teat he could pull in terms of borrowing, he found his world boiled down to one ugly frank reality. His southern adventure had broken him.

  BACK WHEN SHE WAS THIRTEEN—her family at the edge of bankruptcy—V’s father had bet enough money to buy a small farm on a shooting match—a bet that always rested in her mind as the representative scene from that epoch of loss.

  She pictured a muddle of wealthy, ignorant gentlemen, drunk and armed with rifles, in a raw patch of new-cleared ground, their horses and slaves shaded at the edge of the woods. A big lone pine tree sported a bull’s-eye target nailed to its alligator-hide bark. Then WB, who would have been drinking heavily, stepped up to test his skill as a marksman. Or—since he had never in his life been able to hit the side of a cow barn from a hundred feet—to test his belief in the possibility of a miraculous light shining itself on him like a beam of Jacob’s ladder.

  When he came home he’d not only lost his money, but also misplaced his hat and tie. Red mud rose calf-high on his riding boots. He was reeling drunk, tacking wall-to-wall down the center hall of the house, grabbing unsuccessfully for a handhold on the shallow chair rail atop the wainscoting. Drunk had become a common gambit of his. But it had lost all effectiveness in their household except with V’s mother, who always acted as if he’d unexpectedly suffered a mild stroke. And oh her joy a couple of afternoons later when he arose from his stupor, his recovery complete.

  UNLIKE WB, V’s grandfather believed in ownership. He had numerous slaves in New Jersey before, during, and after his governorship. The mansion depended on slaves as much as most every governor’s residence in the country back then. Slaves accomplished everything from construction to maintenance, from cooking and cleaning to growing the kitchen gardens and emptying the chamber pots, all the way to wet nurses offering their weary nipples to somebody else’s babies so that other mothers could get on with their lives. Some years later, V read Frederick Douglass’s claim that he had seen the cotton fields of Mississippi and the pits of Yankee slave markets and considered their horrors about equal. So some version of that horror was how WB grew up. And another version was how V grew up. How everyone grew up then, one way or the other, whichever side of the skin line you chanced to be born on. Children don’t judge their own lives. Normal for them is what’s laid before them day by day. Judgment comes later.

  AT SIXTEEN—other than overwhelming scorn and rage—what power do you control? For the pimply boys V knew, it was guns and their prospects for inheritance. Girls had their bodies and minds. That age, you make choices and don’t always know you’re making them. Some don’t matter, but a surprisingly large lot of them haunt forever. Each choice shuts off whole worlds that might have been.

  The novels V liked at sixteen—and loved in a different way later—were the ones where young women exist at that precise thrilling hinge of time, the making of a dreadful, possibly fatal, choice. Who to marry, who to reject, which path to take? Whether to choose that plump, dullard heir to a vast estate or the handsome woodcutter living in a charming forest cottage. The moment forces decision. Wait, and risk choices disappearing forever. Make up your addled young mind too soon and afterward—unless you are a true and total rebel—your way forward in life narrows down to the dimensions of a railroad tunnel. Or, a better and more modern simile, to the horrific pinching aperture of a camera shutter, metal plates wrapping onto themselves, constricting, until the mechanism quickly opens and then closes for good with the snap of a trap, fixing you in a moment you’ll regret to the grave.

  Whether you pick well or poorly, the act of choosing carries grief. Leaves you wondering, years later, what life might have been had you chosen differently. You’re living happy and comfortable as can be, mother of the placid heir’s dull children, but still wondering about the higher pitch of romance that beautiful woodcutter offered. Or even wishing you’d simply paused, taken a long, deep breath. Not allowed the personal moment and the pattern of your family and your stupid culture to shove you two-handed from behind, forcing you to stumble unbalanced into the future.

  Many years later, now that choices matter less, V has finally learned that sitting calm within herself and waiting is often the best choice. And even when it’s not, those around you become uncomfortable because they think you are wise.

  THERE’S A PHOTOGRAPH of V and Jeff on their honeymoon. They pose in a photographer’s New Orleans studio after stopping along the way downriver from Natchez to visit the grave of his first wife—what a lovely spot to be buried, pastel light filtering through live oaks drooping Spanish moss, prickly palmettos and cypress, and a stretch of opaque brown alligator swamp. In the photo the newlyweds look chilly and weary and very much separate, almost as if two different photographs had been grafted together. He avoids the camera. His eye-line slants stage left, an off-putting sense of evasion when frozen in time. His right eye shows white all around the iris. He poses stiff, impatient, his thin face an arrangement of angles, his right hand resting on his hip with the arm cocked strangely. A pale cravat grips his thin neck tight as a noose drawn up to his chin. The photograph magnifies the difference in their ages. He looks ancient beside her, grim and bloodless and predatory, caved cheeks and raptor nose. A few years later—in a political speech concerning the Wilmot Proviso—Jeff used the simile of a vampire lulling the victim he will soon destroy. Except in the flash of the photographer’s ignited powder, V does not look lulled. She stares directly into the lens and appears angry and tired and more than a little smug.

  THIS IS ALL BY WAY OF PROLOGUE to the betrothal. Except, how to keep memory from rolling back to the months before that several-way transaction was struck between the Davises and the Howells that V fell into naive as Candide, with nothing but love and ambition burning in her young heart? Back before she realized everybody was racing for money and fame and power.

  These days, she tries to be gentle with her young self. Her thinking must have been jangled and chaotic as a handful of steel ball bearings thrown onto the skin of a timpani in the middle of a performance. She keeps wanting to double back and re-dream the big river of her youth. Standing late at night barefoot in the damp lawn looking down on the campfires of the flatboats, the windows of little farms on the far bank glowing lik
e pinpoints of yellow light for an hour or two after dark and then one by one going black. Re-dream the grand houses and parties in Natchez before her father’s fall. Awkward fourteen-year-olds dancing on a Saturday night to a ragged quartet of piano, violin, cornet, and violoncello. Middle-size boys with overlapping front teeth and blemishes sweeping winglike from nose bridge across both cheeks almost to the ears. Black men in white jackets carrying silver trays of canapés—oysters and Gulf shrimp, terrapin minced with cucumber—everything perched on a crouton with a fat red pearl of pepper sauce at the center. The younger boys wiped out those big trays of food like a storm of locust. The fifteen-year-old boys carried flat pewter flasks of whiskey in their breast pockets and made a great show of sipping surreptitiously.

  Memory filters all that sort of material through a slight haze of morphine, which back in her youth her doctors said V needed only a few days monthly and before important dances. So in memory all the pastel dresses and the boys’ dark suits and white shirts trail smears of color behind them as they move about the dance floor, a watercolor blurred across wet paper by dragging a wide brush. A yellow parquet floor’s jagged pattern vibrates in her mind. Many of the other girls lived a similar reality, their doctors believing the same orthodoxy in regard to the magical properties of opiates in managing females.

  During a waltz an earnest young man—sweaty face and gloveless palms—pressed his urgent right hand so low on the small of her back that back isn’t the precise word. And after the waltz drifted to a close and the couples parted, a girlfriend stepped up to whisper in V’s ear that a dark replica of the boy’s damp hand printed itself onto the peach silk of her dress in an indelicate place. Knowing that on a muggy May night in Natchez—air so wet catfish could survive in it—a sweat mark would never dry, like being stamped with the Puritan red letter except comic.

  V remembers the details of that night to the extent that she could still hum most of the tunes the band played, inhale the scent of lavender and sweat from the whispering girlfriend, the musty pomade of the urgent dance partner. She loves every instant of it. Sometimes, after a long series of nightmares, at bedtime she breathes deep and twists the lamp wick and tells herself to shut out the doom dreams that roar like hurricane winds and instead dream that night of awkward youth and dancing, when an ardent palm print on her bottom was her greatest imaginable problem.

  THE GREAT DIVIDE—rivers change direction and you’re stuck following one flow or the other from then on. That was the trip to Davis Bend. Out of The Briers, into The Hurricane.

  In early fall of the year, at the dinner table, V’s father announced that a very attractive and generous invitation had arrived for her. She would be traveling upriver to the plantation of Joseph Davis, a lawyer and planter and former partner of WB’s in a rare successful investment. The Hurricane occupied a several-thousand-acre hunk of land in a big C-shaped meander of the Mississippi that people had started calling Davis Bend. She was to go up at the beginning of December and stay through Christmas and into the New Year, two months at least. Maybe more. Home by Valentine’s Day at the latest. Her tutor, Winchester, would escort her there and then return to Natchez, leaving her in the care of the Davis women, a wife and some indeterminate number of daughters. At which point, her relationship with Winchester—at least as student and teacher—would end. WB suggested V should look upon the trip as a holiday—new places, new people. Important for her to make an impression. Also Joseph had a younger brother who was developing an adjoining plantation called Brierfield, and she would certainly meet him during the visit. Etc., etc. WB even raised his glass in a toast, as if something happy were being celebrated.

  V raised her glass right back and said, How welcome. A worthy substitute for the debutante ball next spring, for which I won’t be tapped. So, let’s all drink to wonderful new opportunities no longer available in Natchez or Vicksburg or New Orleans. Here’s to my new life among a band of wilderness strangers.

  She delivered her lines with every grain of mighty sarcasm an unhappy teen can summon.

  WINCHESTER GRADUATED from Princeton, which swung weight even in Mississippi. But it swung the other way too. He had passed the bar and started a struggling law practice but also knew all about Greek and Latin literature and philosophy and history, which some of WB’s more suspect business friends felt served a similar function to sprinkling colored sugar on cake icing.

  People became more indulgent after Winchester’s inheritance. He suddenly owned better than two thousand very fine acres fronting on the Mississippi over on the Louisiana side. Except, immediately upon possession, Winchester began letting most of the fields return to their previous junglous state. He kept only a couple hundred in cotton—figuring that was all the cash he needed to live on—plus another ten in food crops.

  When asked by his peers why he ran his plantation as he did—whether he meant something by it or not, whether there was a particular theme to his strange choices—he raised his arms before him and flippered both hands impatiently and said the word slaves with a tone of ambiguous annoyance. Some fellow planters agreed that slaves required constant attention and that for every good worker you also had to support a half-dozen children and a useless granny or two. Others agreed that as an institution, slavery’s time had passed, its golden age behind it, though the Bible and the Constitution of the United States confirmed its holy justice. Others worried Winchester had gone north to school and had lost all his common sense and had abandoned belief in slavery altogether.

  Then one mighty day, after months of thought on the topic, Winchester freed all his enslaved workers. He handed them their papers and shooed them on their way. Then he began hiring workers the way Yankees did, cheap and by the carefully measured hour. But, unlike Yankees, he paid everyone the same wages—remnant Choctaw and freed blacks got the same as whites. He hired back many of his previous slaves under the new economics. For those who wanted to live in his housing, he started charging rent. And when it came to food and clothing, he left everybody to manage for themselves. Winchester lived alone and ate mostly bean stews, grits and greens, and other such simple bowl meals that he cooked for himself.

  He suffered under the judgment of his fellow rich planters who claimed he had gone crazy. He answered that he had seen the future of capitalism, and believed that if they fully understood it, the planters would embrace it like a favorite New Orleans whore.

  V was seven the year Winchester got bored with farming and sold his land and moved in with the Howells under some arrangement with WB that she, even now, doesn’t understand fully, but has celebrated nearly every day of her life when an electric spark of memory delivers a reminder that Winchester valued her far beyond what WB—or anyone else—ever did.

  WINCHESTER HADN’T ARRIVED with any intention of being her tutor. He lived out in one of the back cottages at The Briers with his books. He had an office in town and was just a struggling lawyer and not the judge in black robes he later became. He took supper at the family table, but otherwise they saw little of him.

  A couple of months after his arrival, though, he volunteered to tutor V and would not accept a penny in pay. Maybe he felt the need to reimburse WB for room and board, or maybe he saw something in V worth his time and interest. She remembers one detail from their first day together as student and teacher. V had recently asked her mother what her odd name meant, where it came from. Her mother said, Your father came up with it. I guess he thought it sounded exotic. V asked Winchester the same question, what her name meant. He said, It comes from the Greeks. A variant of Barbara. It means foreigner. Barbarian. Onomatopoeia. They thought outsider languages sounded like baa, baa, baa, vaa, vaa, vaa. Grunts and chatter. From about that time, Winchester was V’s only teacher and she was his only student—excepting a miserable few months at a school for hateful rich girls in Philadelphia ruled by a despot V ever after called Madame X. WB sent her there believing it would be a grand experience for her. The girls mocked her accent, laughed about her skin col
or, her height, her seriousness in discussing the fine points of translation. Said to her face that she was so frontier, so unpolished. After only one quarter, much to V’s joy, Madame X sent her home.

  All those years together, V thought of Winchester as elderly. Old Winchester. But looking back and doing the sums, he wasn’t much past thirty when she met him. He hadn’t married when he arrived at The Briers and never did.

  V couldn’t decide whether her father tried to be kind or cruel when he asked Winchester to escort her upriver to Davis Bend. Maybe WB thought the break would be easier on her if it was clean and quick and final. Or maybe he wanted to send her the message that at seventeen she was old enough to make her own way, that he had cut her loose, shoved her into a world where the contractual nature of marriage was stronger than novels had led her to expect.

  Starting right then, and continuing through the rest of his life, she dropped addressing Winchester by any name but Dear Heart.

  Right about here, cynics might need reassurance. Male tutors and piano teachers and art instructors hold dim reputations in regard to their behavior toward young female students. Yet as V has said many times over the years—hand to Holy Book—the only touches passing between them all those years, all those thousands of hours alone in the dim silent library and out in the little one-room schoolhouse on the back lawn, were occasional pats on the back of her hand, taps on each temple from his slim forefingers to encourage her to think harder rather than give up when some complex twist of language and thought from Aristotle or Plato or Heraclitus rose like a high gray stone wall between her and the distant brilliant past. Except for that last day at Davis Landing.


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