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By Steve Erickson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Steve Erickson
All rights reserved.
On an April night almost midpoint in the Eighteenth Century, in the county of Orange and the colony of Virginia, Jacob Pollroot tasted his death a moment before swallowing it. He had, then, a moment to spit it out and save himself. This moment was lost not because he was slow-witted but because he'd become a monster of appetites; his had not been a life of spitting out things. The taste was sweet, slyly familiar. He'd tasted it before, in some Indian campaign of his youth or some night with one of his black women. But he had only the time now to look up from the stew that was his dinner, gaze at the house around him, and see through the steam of the poison his slave Evelyn standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
He raised his hands to his throat. The pain began almost immediately in the pit of his stomach, widening in a circle to his bowels below and his brain above. He pushed away from the table and lurched across the room; Evelyn watched without glee or concern. "Jesus you've killed me," Jacob wailed, crashing into a wall of dishes. For a moment he lay shuddering on the floor. Some would later say his hideous noises were the leakage of a black life hissing out of every orifice.
Evelyn walked up to the body. She stood over it long enough that she might have been contemplating giving it a good kick. She looked up to the faces of the other slaves in the windows, who were staring in stupefaction not, she knew, simply at Jacob Pollroot's death, but her own.
At Evelyn's trial there was a thorough recounting of Jacob's barbarities, and testimony as to Evelyn's constant debasement at Jacob's hands and his savage treatment of his slaves in general. All this was accepted not as reasons that might justify Jacob's murder, but rather as the motives that proved Evelyn had done the deed. Evelyn herself said nothing. She sat throughout the trial as impassively as she'd watched Jacob topple across his dinner. She wasn't invited to speak; her trial wasn't seen as a legal right extended to a person to defend herself—since by Virginia law Evelyn wasn't a person—but as an object lesson for a system that occasionally needed one. The case certainly created alarm throughout the county. The court found Evelyn guilty and sentenced her to be burned at the stake, once the spring rains stopped and the town could find wood dry enough for it.
The rest of Jacob Pollroot's slaves would later create the legend that on the first of May when Evelyn was torched alive, she received the inferno's lust with the same stoic self-possession as she'd received Jacob's so many nights. But it was a difficult legend to maintain in the face of Evelyn's screams, so terrible they stunned even those who had witnessed such executions before. For days afterward the pale and shaken townspeople still remembered the screams, transparent portholes in the flames through which could be seen Evelyn's aghast face. Her ashes smoked for hours in the twilight. The smell of them carried in people's hair and clothes, and the cloud of smoke rose high into the Virginia sky, visible for miles around.
It was visible in the next county. A Virginia squire driving his wagon down the muddy road toward his plantation looked up to watch it rise above the mountain. A dark knowing murmur swept through his own slaves riding in the wagon and walking alongside; on the hills and in the fields slaves stopped their work to look up at the smoke. At that moment the squire, hearing the dangerous din of their black prayers, wanted nothing more than a strong wind that would scatter the smoke, though a full gale force would not disperse its memory. Next to him on the wagon seat the squire's five-year-old son watched the smoke too. Into the night the little boy smelled it. He smelled it in his food and his bath. In the air outside his bedroom window that should have been ripe with the scent of spring rain, he smelled nothing but the burning body of the black female slave. He woke in the middle of the night vomiting; and lying in bed the next day, depleted and delirious, his five-year-old head was filled with excruciating visions: staring into the nothingness above him, he waited for the woman's ashes to fall from the sky, to clot the branches of the trees and hang from the rafters of the house like black snow. The boy's name was Thomas.CHAPTER 2
Thirty-four years later, down the hall from Thomas' boyhood room, as the smoke of revolution settled over the countryside, a nine-year-old slavegirl called Sally stood in another room watching her mistress' last hours. Along with Sally were her mother, brother and most of the other houseslaves. In bed a dying young woman glided in and out of consciousness, gripping her husband's hand. The heavy blue curtains were closed to the sun; the dank smell of childbirth and the woman's dying mixed with the fragrances of lilac and musk, which a bedchamber slave frantically wafted through the room until Sally thought she'd gag. Thomas finally wrested himself from his stunned bewilderment. "Please," he whispered, so low Sally could barely hear him, "no more perfume." It was the only thing anyone had said in hours, and the stricken husband returned to his silent vigil.
In fact the mistress of the house had been weak and in poor health as long as Sally could remember, and had lain on this particular edge of death for some time. The smell of placenta and blood that still hung in the bedchamber was from the birth of the mistress' third daughter. Throughout the recent weeks visitors had come to the house from across Virginia not to offer best wishes to the sick woman but to pay respects to the departed one, since news traveled prematurely that she had already died. All summer Thomas walked the halls of the house in a trance. Racked first with the sorrow of his impending loss and the denial of its inevitability, he'd nearly come to that point where such denial becomes anticipation, as a consequence of which such sorrow becomes guilt. His hand perpetually in hers, he was both ready to pull her back as she was sucked into the afterworld and to squeeze her fingers goodbye in his encouragement that she go.
At night in their quarters the slaves talked about what would happen to them when the mistress was gone. It wasn't that they feared their treatment at the hands of the master. The master treated the slaves better than the mistress, actually; no one had ever seen him beat a slave or order a slave beaten. Once in town Sally watched with awe as Thomas, who at more than six feet tall towered over most men, seized a stick from a handyman who was beating a slave. Thomas neither bought slaves nor sold them; he'd inherited his from his father. But most of the slaves belonged to the mistress when she married Thomas, and over the years of their marriage the master had remained incomprehensible to them when not appearing simply eccentric. He was dreamy and distracted and perhaps, for all anyone could tell, a bit addled—a lawyer who never had any clients, a tinkerer who built peculiar contraptions with arcane functions. To the nine-year-old slavegirl Sally there was something godlike about his calm. She was mesmerized by his immaculate silence, his chaste reflectiveness. The rest of the slaves were more unsettled than reassured by his strange otherness. They didn't know what to make of it when Thomas occasionally rode off to Williamsburg to propose laws that declared no one would own any more slaves.
Thus, standing at the deathbed of the mistress on this September afternoon, the watching slaves were as much distressed by the uncertainty of the moment as by its gravity. When the sun finally fell and the blue curtains were pulled aside from the window, the mistress woke from her stupor with a start. "Tom," she said calmly, "I want to tell my children goodbye."
Thomas visibly shuddered. Slowly he turned to look over his shoulder. For a breathless moment Sally thought he was looking at her; she raised her hand to her chest. But in fact Thomas was looking at Sally's mother, who turned and left the room and then reappeared with the two older daughters, Patsy and Polly. The wetnurse brought the baby, Lucy. Stoic and purposeful only moments before, the mistress dissolved at the sight of her two little girls, calling to them hysterically with her arms open. Patsy, at ten the older of the two, gamely went to her mother, but the younger Polly, terrified, turned and ran straight into Sally, clutching Sally's skirt. Sally's mother gently pulled Polly away. The mistress sobbed uncontrollably. Thomas stared at the scene in devastation. Sally's mother took Patsy and Polly from the room. The wetnurse approached the mistress tentatively with the baby whose birth had killed her; the dying woman only shook her head once and seemed to lapse again into unconsciousness. A quarter of an hour later she began to speak as before. "It's not right," she said, "that they should have another mother."
Thomas looked up in surprise. He'd assumed she was asleep.
"It's not right," she said firmly. "Tell me."
"What?" said Thomas.
"Tell me please, Tom," she begged, "that our little girls won't call some other woman mother."
"But how can they have another mother?" Thomas asked blankly, confused. "They have only one mother."
"Then you won't marry another," Sally heard the mistress say, "they'll be our little girls forever. I'll be your wife forever as you'll be my husband."
"You'll always be my wife," Sally heard the master say.
"Tell me," the woman whispered. The sun had fallen behind the hills, and the room was dark.
Sally heard him say, "Yes."
She died an hour later, not long after someone lit the candles. All the summer goodbyes Thomas had squeezed into his wife's hand were forgotten. He rose slowly as the life left her, and as he stared down at her there was in the candlelight on his face no goodbye, no yes, only no, only horror and incredulity; and then he made a sound like nothing any of the slaves had ever heard. It was so terrible, so wordlessly abysmal, that nine-year-old Sally ran from the room. The slaves were torn between their instinct to embrace the master and their fear of approaching the source of such a sound. The sound didn't stop. Sally's older brother James grabbed Thomas and took him from the bedchamber. Sally's mother tended to the corpse as the young slavegirl stood in the hallway where James led Thomas to the library. Other slaves now came into the hall from outside, and Thomas' two little girls also came running in, Patsy with her face in her hands and Polly crying. In the library was a sudden crash. Sally got to the library doorway to see Thomas on the floor, a small table in pieces beneath him where he'd collapsed. Sally didn't see him again for weeks, during which Thomas remained in the dark library speaking to no one.
Sally wouldn't realize it until years later, but her mother had originally belonged to the mistress' father, who—as was not uncommon in Virginia—had a taste for fucking his female slaves. Such an encounter begat Sally. The mistress' father, then, was in fact Sally's father; Thomas' dying wife was in fact also Sally's dying half-sister. This was as much a bond between Sally and Thomas as the deathbed assurance he would never remarry, and as would be yet another bond made between them five years later, one not so easy to break as a promise.CHAPTER 3
For another summer Thomas grieved, remote and celibate, unresponsive to the women of Virginia who flirted for his attention. Some of these women were single, some already married, others widowed by revolution and disease. In his shy and remote manner he kept their company and considered their sexual offers, among which only the adulterous ones tempted him. For the most part he remained to himself. For weeks, sometimes months, the spellbinding pain behind his eyes that he'd known as a child returned to hold his head in its crush. The slaves could hear his moan in the darkened library, where Sally sometimes glimpsed her mother applying cold rags to his face. Finally the headaches would wane. From the back porch Sally watched Thomas ride off alone in the afternoons, the wild hills his only direction, desolation his only rendezvous.
Thomas resolved after still another summer to leave grief behind and not know it anymore. He made plans to sail with his oldest daughter Patsy for France, booking passage on a ship and reserving all its berths so that they'd sail alone. He decided to take with him Sally's brother James as his personal valet and servant. On the afternoon of departure all the slaves of the household as well as the fieldhands followed the carriage—driven by James and carrying Thomas and Patsy—down the road waving goodbye. Sally's mother was the last to linger, watching the road until long after the carriage was out of sight.
Thomas' ship took six weeks crossing the Atlantic, docking at Le Havre almost two years to the day after the death of Thomas' wife. From Le Havre, Thomas and Patsy and James traveled to the French village of Rouen. There they stayed in an inn overlooking the town square. In the middle of the night Thomas woke to a dreadful smell that turned his stomach. Thinking he was going to be sick, he jumped from his bed and stumbled to the window, throwing open the shutters; what filled his lungs wasn't fresh air but the very thing that had awakened him. The night was full of it. He recognized it as the smoke of the burning black female slave that had risen from the next county thirty-six years earlier; slamming shut the window he backed away from it as though an apparition would appear any moment. Thomas wasn't remotely a superstitious man, so he didn't easily accept the prospect of apparitions. He was, on the other hand, habitually tormented about his slaves, whose ownership he could barely bring himself to accept but whose freedom he could not bring himself to give. He returned to bed and, his face buried in his pillow, to sleep. The next day he was reminded by one of the villagers that, three and a half centuries before, the girlwarrior Jeanne from Arc had been tried and burned at the stake in the square below Thomas' hotel window. On the road out of Rouen, from his carriage view, he almost believed he could see streaks of ash in the morning rain.
They arrived in Paris a week later, after dark. Their carriage entered the city from the west, through a gateway in the outer wall, and then spiraled its way into the heart of the city along the inner concentric walls. The streets reeked of cognac and sex. Merchants and rabble-rousers, soldiers and whores jostled each other; women opened their dresses and breasts to the passing coach while insurrectionists, ankle deep in open sewers, exploded with streams of incomprehensible diatribe. Down every avenue tunnels wound off into an ominous darkness that was broken only by the flash of light from a door thrown open, in the momentary glare of which could be seen people engaged in acts so unfamiliar it was impossible to grasp just what they were. Patsy shrank from the onslaught. Her father gazed deliriously. The city seemed to Thomas the size of a country. The carriage continued descending from one ring of walls to the next; by the time they reached the rue d'X and the Hotel Langeac that would be their home over the years to come, Patsy cried for Virginia. Thomas, on the other hand, felt liberated by the way the city had already violated him.
Paris was electrified by the news of Thomas' arrival. Clergy and aristocracy greeted his appearance with alarm, while French radicals and American expatriates made pilgrimages to the Hotel Langeac where they might discuss philosophy and revolution with him. Thomas spurned the invitations of the French elite who wanted to take his measure and instead passed his time in bohemian circles. His liaisons with women were limited to bubbly libertines and deeply discontented wives who wouldn't threaten the vow he'd made to his own in her last hour. His most serious affair was with Maria, the wife of an English pornographer who abused her, often leaving her alone in Paris for weeks before snatching her back to London.
The winter after he'd come to Paris, Thomas received the news that Lucy, the last child born to his wife, had died of the whooping cough at the age of two. Not able to trust anyone else to keep at bay the grief he'd resolved never to know, he arranged for the passage to France of his other daughter, Polly. He sent word to his sister in Virginia that Polly was to come as soon as possible, in the care of whatever female slave seemed suitable.
Excerpted from Arc d'X by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 1993 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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