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THE BOY AND HIS MOTHER
C.D.--I took my uncle's advice to heart. I would learn by doing. I would go to Mount Vernon. I would see Martha Washington and state my case.
Young writers, afflicted as they are with the arrogance of naïveté, expect that anyone should be interested in talking with them, simply for the opportunity to have their words put down.
Why would Mrs. Washington refuse a writer setting out to tell her husband's story? For the same reason she had burned their letters, of course. But I did not consider the answer. I was too pleased with the plan.
So the next morning I headed south on a borrowed horse. The night's rain had frozen on every Alexandria rooftop and tree branch, giving the whole world the look of a delicious marzipan confection. And all along the river, sunlight shimmered like the silver coins that would soon be jangling in my pocket.
About nine miles downstream, the road rose from the river onto the winter-sere fields of the Muddy Hole Farm, one of five that Washington had established on his Potomac acreage. Each farm had its own buildings,its own slaves and overseers, its own part to play in Washington's grand scheme, though what that scheme was, I could not tell, nor did I care. My interest was the mansion house.
And if Washington was an actor, as my uncle had suggested, there was a true sense of the theatrical in the way that he had ordered his landscape to reveal his house. After a traveler left Muddy Hole behind, the piney woods thickened, dramatically absorbing the light until, like a curtain, they parted, revealing a wide meadow that rose to a promontory atop which sat the famous mansion.
I was struck first by the color of the roof. It was the red-orange of sunset, as painted by some artist whose canvases might be garish but whose taste in roofing colors was close to perfection. The house itself was a glorious white, and on that glorious morning I could not believe that I had ever seen anything so magnificent.
As I drew closer, I noticed the slave quarters, fine brick barracks under a row of trees; I admired the gardens on either side of the carriage turnaround; I counted no fewer than a dozen outbuildings flanking the mansion like honor guards. And the piece-by-piece nature of the mansion's construction became apparent.
Washington had expanded his home three times, permitting small though not displeasing asymmetries--a main entrance set a few feet left of center, a window on one side of the door but no balancing window on the other, a cupola rising from the ridge beam, several feet out of line with the peak of the gabled front. Or was it the gable that was out of line? No matter.
For all its majesty this was a house with a humanface, quite unlike the cold and implacable visage that artists had given to its master as he grew in age and importance.
The house looked as if it had been built of sandstone blocks, but closer examination revealed that the siding was wood, paneled and coated with a sandtextured white paint. After a liveried slave admitted me to the passage, the hallway through the center of the house, I was embraced by the rich, warm woodwork of the paneling, the moldings, the arches above the doorframes. Then I realized that it was all like the exterior: simple American material--pine, perhaps--artfully painted to resemble something grander.
Was this foyer, this whole house, a symbol for the man who built it? A place of majesty hewn from coarser things?
My musing was interrupted by a tall and solemn gentleman appearing from one of the doorways on the passage. "Can I help you, sir?"
I introduced myself as Christopher Draper, son of the late Joshua Draper, former Federalist congressman from Massachusetts.
He told me he was Tobias Lear, the Washingtons' secretary, and he asked the reason for my visit.
"I'm a writer, sir, about to write a life of General Washington."
"Like half the writers in this country." His attitude was noncommittal if not downright hostile.
I had expected--again the arrogance of naïveté--a warm welcome, a seat in Mrs. Washington's parlor, a cup of tea. Washington hospitality was well known.
Instead, Mr. Lear demanded, "What is the theme of your work? The political intent? And who will print it?"
I did not want to tell him the truth, so I fell back on something I had read in a pamphlet of advice: "Writers write, sir, to discover their themes. I want to discover Washington the man. As for political intent, I'm simply trying to write an ... an honest book about a man who ... who valued honesty."
And there I stopped. I was not so naive as to think that an honest answer to his third question would do me any good at all.
But Lear was not to be put off. "Yes ... And the printer with whom you share a surname is best known for his opposition to the late General."
No amount of dissembling could change my name, so I decided to push ahead. "'Tis true, sir, that Hesperus Draper will print what I write, but he cannot make me change the truth."
"You'll forgive me if I don't believe you," answered Lear. "You'll also forgive Lady Washington if she begs her indisposition. And I'll forgive you for showing the bad taste to appear at a house in mourning, unannounced, not three weeks after the master's death. Good day, sir."
And there I stood, in a puddle of my own embarrassment, trying to think of something to save the visit.
It was then that Miss Delilah Smoot appeared, bound for the downstairs bedchamber, her arms heaped high with linens. She went about her business with head down and eyes averted, but when she glanced at me from the corner of her eye, she stopped as if struck by a sash weight.
I felt my jaw drop at the sight of her, and my stomach dropped, too. I nearly spoke to her, which would surely have exposed us both to Lear's suspicion.
But after an instant of shock, Miss Delilah scurried into the bedchamber as though she had never seen me before and had barely seen me then.
In the time it took for Tobias Lear to usher me out, and for my horse to carry me back to the edge of the woods, Miss Delilah managed to finish her chores, mount a horse in the stable, find her way through the trees to the south, and appear on the road just ahead of me.
"Mr. Draper. Mr. Trusted Confidant." The only thing more surprising than the sound of her voice was the sarcasm. "Your uncle promised he would never come here while I worked here. What are you doin' here?"
I spurred a little closer. "I came to see Mrs. Washington, so that she might help me write a book about the General. And I wanted to see you."
I hoped that last part would compliment her, but it served only to anger her. "You can't come here. It's--"
And we both heard a noise--the sound of someone humming nearby.
"It's a slave," whispered Delilah. "An honest slave always hums when he thinks he's come upon white folk in private talk ... to let them know he's there."
She kicked her mount toward a curl of smoke rising from behind a clump of pines. And there was the slave, standing over a little fire. He was wearing a matchcoat that looked new, patched breeches that looked old, and a slouch hat pulled so low that his face could barely be looked upon at all.
"Mornin', Miss Delilah."
"Jacob. What are you doin'?"
"Your pa, he send me out to pick up deadwood andwhat the ice take down. Burn the twigs, he say, and save the branches for kindlin'." The old slave tugged at the brim of his hat and gave me a "Mornin', suh."
"Morning," I answered. Then, by way of making a bit of conversation, I said that he had probably seen many a winter at Mount Vernon.
"Oh, yassuh, I see winters so cold your breath freeze 'fore it git out your mouth. And summers so hot, that big ol' river down there, it like to stop flowin'."
"Mr. Confidant," said Delilah, "I think you should be goin'."
Perhaps. But what stories could this old slave tell? I dismounted and told Delilah, "I'll warm myself by the fire before I leave, and perhaps Jacob can tell me of bygone summers ... to warm me better still."
She gave me a look to drive an iron nail through a two-inch plank. "If my pa finds you botherin' a slave, he'll whup the slave. Then he's like to whup you too, 'specially if he finds you're from Boston." She ordered me not to bother her or the Washingtons again. Then she kicked her horse and was gone.
"Spirited, ain't she?" said Jacob, giving me a sly look and a sly chuckle. The fire crackled and smoked, and we stood beside it for a few moments. Then he said, "So you makin' a book 'bout the General?"
"You heard us?"
"Slaves hear a lot."
I peered under the brim of the hat, into the ancient face. His skin was dark, though not the darkest I had seen among the slaves of Virginia. A hoarfrost of stubble covered his chin, and there were deep lines on either side of his flat nose, like furrows in a field. But it was in his eyes that his age was most apparent. They had no white. What was not brown was red--a hundredtiny veins and vessels, bloodshot and broken--and nothing in his sweet chuckle could drain them of their sadness.
I asked him how long he had known the General.
"What year he born?"
I told him in 1732.
"Then I know him from 1732 right up till a few weeks ago."
And I knew I had made the right choice in staying. Where else breathed there a man who might say he had seen Washington in his diapers and in his coffin ... and be telling the truth?
I had been taught that, in general, the Negro was not to be believed about anything that the white man could not verify, as lying served his laziness, which was as natural as his color. But Jacob's eyes bespoke more honesty to me than I had heard in a lifetime of Boston sermons, and even if his mouth delivered no better than half-truths, I wanted to hear them.
"Could you tell me what you remember about the General?" I asked.
"How long you got?" He dragged a log close to the fire, angled it so that it was upwind of the smoke, then plunked himself down.
"You have work to be doing," I said. "Won't you be whipped if--"
"I'se a house slave in the President's mansion. I been places. I seen things. If I wants to sit and speak a bit 'bout the General, they ain't no overseer gonna raise a hand to me." He smacked the log. "So jess set here and ax me a question. I do the rest. I likes to talk."
That was an understatement. As my uncle might say, old Jacob could talk a dog off a meat wagon, andhe did not stop talking until the December sun finally dipped toward the horizon.
That night, in my room in Gadsby's Tavern, I took a dozen sheets of rag bond from my trunk, along with a new bottle of ink and two sharpened quills, and I began to set down Jacob's story, leaving out those places where I had prodded him or questioned him, adjusting the words that he put into others' mouths so that they sounded appropriate, but keeping, as best I could, the peculiarities of his speech and pronunciation. It would be the first Washington story of many.
The Narrative of Jacob, Mount Vernon Slave:
I come into the world, near's I can figger, in the year 1728, on the Washin'ton tobacco farm on Popes Creek, jess 'bove where it run in the P'tomac.
My mama's name be Narcissa, and she a big woman, see, with big fleshy arms that jiggle when she laugh ... jiggle when she mad, too. Truth is, she jiggle all over, and ain't nothin' make a boy feel happier 'n to have them arms 'round him.
She owned by a planter named Shields, down Williamsburg way, who decide to sell off some of his breedin' wenches. Tha's what them white massas call good women like my mama--breedin' wenches.
And tha's how Massa Washin'ton--the General's father--how he come to buy her. 'Course, he don't know he's gittin' hisself a two-fo'-one deal, 'cause I'se a-growin' in my mama's belly.
Now, my papa, him I never know. When I'se little,mama tell me he go west and mebbe he come back someday. By and by, she tell me the truth--he run away from that Shields plantation right after they sell her. They track him six days 'fore they catch him, all hungry, tore up from brambles ... snakebit, too.
When the overseer ax what to do with him, Massa jess say to hang the nigger, hang him from the nearest tree. Say he cause trouble for the last time, and no Shields gonna sell no troublemakin' nigger to no neighbor.
Yassuh ... if they's one thing 'bout Tidewater folk, they's good neighbors.
Mama say she don't want for me to end up twistin' from no tree, so she ain't makin' Papa out to be no hero. Better for me to live my life workin' for the Washin'tons. They treat slaves good, and don't hang none of 'em, neither.
Now Massa Washin'ton, his name Augustine, but ever'body call him Gus. He be a big 'n--six feet, with shoulders like a big ox yoke, and one of them big heads, like a big ox head, see, kind of head he pass on to the General. And he be strong as a ox, too, like the General.
He git his land from his pa, who git it from his 'fore him. The Washin'tons, see, they been in Virginny since 1650 or so, but they ain't what you call first-rank folk. And Massa Gus ain't a man to sit still. Always itchin' for a bigger spread, for ... for fatter fish to fry.
He have him two sons off to school in England, Lawrence and Augustine, and he spend time over there hisself, lookin' for them fat fish. And when he's away one time, his first wife die. I don't 'member her. But I sure do 'member the woman he marry 'bout a year later.
She have the name Mary Ball, but some slaves call her Mary Ball-and-Chain. Easy to see why she make it all the way to the age of twenty-three without a husband. I b'lieve she bring land as dowry. Mebbe tha's why Massa Gus marry her. Lord know, they ain't many other reasons.
She ain't no beauty, tha's for sure. She have what you call a strong face, see, and she need it to hold down that strong nose of hers. Same kind of nose the General git, come to think of it. And her eyes is wide apart, kind of eyes that don't give up much, one way or th'other. When she look at you, you don't know what she's thinkin' or even if she's thinkin' ... and damn but if them ain't the kind of eyes the General git, too.
First I 'member of her come when her belly take to swellin', bout eight months after she come to Popes Creek. I'se in the kitchen with Mama, see. She be the house cook now, and she teachin' me how to make gingerbread. I like bein' in the kitchen. Warm in there, and it smell good. And Mama always let me lick the spoon once I'se done stirrin' the gingerbread.
Now, Mama step out back to lug in a few logs, so I'se all alone, stirrin' the gingerbread, stirrin' and smellin', and it smell good. So I takes a taste, see. I brings the spoon to my lips, and damn, but it taste good, too. Tha's what I'se thinkin' whilst commencin' to stir agin.
And all of a sudden, a shadow come over me. And I hears that voice, high and scratchy, like a gate needin' grease. Mary Ball-and-Chain Washin'ton herself. She say, "You 'spect me to eat that, now that it's got your spit in it?"
Well, I can't think of nothin' to say. I'se too scairt,and that belly of hers, it's all but pokin' in my face, big and round, like it's 'bout to bust right there.
And she say, "What you starin' at, you nosy little pickaninny?"
Tha's when Mama come in and see Miz Washin'ton lookin' down like--this how Mama say it--like she lookin' at somethin' she jess step in, and I'se lookin' up like I'se 'bout to git stepped on. Mama start yellin', "He sorry, ma'am. He jess a young 'n. What all he done, he won't do it never agin."
Ball-and-Chain say, "Teach him his manners or keep him out the kitchen."
Mama whup me good after that. She say the Washin'tons be good massas, and I'se never to do nothin' to make 'em want to sell me. Well, suh, I promise myself right then I ain't never crossin' that lady. Even when I git older, that woman scare me. Scare all the boys ... even the white boys. And tha's a fact.
Next I 'member of her be a few months later, a cold Febr'ary mornin'. I'se outside with a little hatchet, shavin' wood chips to throw on a smolderin' cook fire, so's it jump up hot. Safe job for a boy jess learnin' how to handle a hatchet. How a little shaver gits to be a big shaver, see.
Anyways, I hears a scream, and Mama come runnin' out the house and say, "Fetch some firewood, Jakie! Bring it t' Massa's bedroom! And be quick!"
I thinks, if tha's Ball-and-Chain doin' the screamin', I don't want to be nowheres nearby. But I don't want to git whupped, neither, so I do what I'se told. And I learn two things: First, whatever Eve done in the Garden, women been payin' for it ever since.Second, a slave can make hisself invisible jess by standin' still.
Ball-and-Chain layin' on the bed. Mama standin' to one side of her, moppin' her brow. A white neighbor lady be on th'other side, holdin' her hand. 'Nother white lady, the midwife lady, she standin' 'twixt Ball-and-Chain's legs.
I drop the logs and I'se backin' out the room when Ball-and-Chain start in to screamin' agin--a big loud scream that go up so high I reckon it might bust the windows. Then I hear the midwife say, "All right, darlin'. Push."
Well, push what? I'se thinkin'. So I stops in the corner and takes a peek.
This be somethin' new, seein' a white lady with her legs spread, lookin' like her insides be bustin' out of her. She scream and strain like somebody jess drop a mill wheel on her belly and she tryin' to lift it off 'fore it crush her.
I wants to run. But I don't. And long's I stand still, them white ladies don't even know I'se there. Then they's more screamin' from Miz Washin'ton and all kinds of nice words from the others, sayin' what a good job she be doin'.
Well, I'se wonderin' what in hell could she be doin' to make her scream so.
Then the midwife lady say, "Baby's crownin'," and I catch on. Foalin' season for the white folk. Now, I seen cows drop calves, and I seen bitches whelp pups, but I ain't never seen this. So I watch right the way through. She push and scream some more, and then I see hair, hair the color of a chestnut stallion. And 'fore long, I'se lookin' at a head. Then the midwife git in the way, and I hears one more big scream, andMama's the first one to say it: "Oh, Lordy, it's a boy!"
Midwife take the baby and hold him by th' ankles. He's blue, a little bloody, and drippin' this white, cheesy stuff, jess like all the babies I ever seen born since. And the midwife give him a slap, right on the ass, see. And that baby cry, high and screechy, like some 'coon treed by the dog pack.
I'se wonderin' why they hit that baby and make him cry so. But I learn soon 'nough, tha's how we all come in the world, white babies like li'l Georgie Washin'ton, and black babies like me.
We don't stay at Popes Creek long. Massa Gus buy some land from his sister, where Little Huntin' Creek reach the P'tomac, place called Epse ... Epsewasson. Injun name, see.
By and by they call it Mount Vernon. But it ain't much when we git there, jess a little tenant house, which Massa Gus fix up, so he have four rooms downstairs, three up, and good, solid chimbleys, too. Slaves gits what you call push-away chimbleys, all mud and sticks. If they's ever a fire in one, you run out and push it away from your shack. But on the big house, they's still usin' the chimbleys we built back then, we build 'em so good.
But Massa Gus don't stay there much. He have a iron furnace near Fredericksburg, see--one of them fish that ain't never so fat on the plate as in the water--and he always down there. Wonder to me he git Ball-and-Chain big-bellied four times more. But he be the kind of pa what spend more time makin' his chilluns than makin' 'em happy.
'Course I don't have no pa, so I figger the world be workin' like it should. Slave chilluns and white chilluns play together nice, right up till the time come for ever'body to learn their place. Then they send the white chilluns to their tutors and the black chilluns to the overseers.
Well, one day--I'se ten and Massa Georgie is six--Massa Gus tell me his boy like to fish, and he know I like to fish, so mebbe I teach Georgie ... .
Well, I teach that boy all I know--how to find a straight saplin' for a pole ... where to find big night crawlers ... how to put 'em on the hook ... . Then we go down to the dock and dangle our lines. Catch catfish, bass, carp ... . We fish all that summer. Ain't no better way to spend them hot days than settin' on the dock, danglin' a line. I figger I has a friend for life. Then somethin' happen.
We's settin' barefoot on the dock, see, and I'se splashin' my toes, but little Georgie, he can't reach. So he be stretchin' his leg, tryin' to git his toes down in the water, jess to prove to hisself how tall he gittin'.
And all the while, he talkin' 'bout his half brother Lawrence, who done schoolin' in England and be comin' home any day.
I ax Georgie if he want to go to England.
He say his pa tell him he goin' there for schoolin'.
I say, "I reckon I likes to stay here and fish."
He say, "Me too." Then he finely git that big toe down in the water and give 'er a splash and start a-shoutin', "Hey, Jake! I done it! I done it!"
But I don't care about that, 'cause somethin' pull at my line and damn near pull me in the water. That pole bend like a bow. I start in to screamin' and shoutin' and Georgie's jumpin' up and down, sayin' "C'mon, Jake! C'mon. It's a big 'n. A big 'n."
And tha's when we hears the plantation bell. Now, the bell ring for lots of things--to call the slaves to supper, call for help if they's a fire or somethin'--and Mama, she promise us she ring it soon's Lawrence come ridin' up the road. Well, 'tain't dinnertime, and we don't smell no smoke, so Georgie figures 'tis his brother. I'se callin' for him to help me bring in that fish, but he's gone runnin' up the path ... .
I gits that fish up on the dock by myself--a catfish long's my leg. And it's twistin' and slitherin' and it's swallered the hook too deep to git out. Catfishes do that, see. So I decides I'll bring it up to Mama, let her gut it and cook it. I'se proud of that fish, and I'se hopin' ever'body gonna make a big thing out of it.
But when I gits to the house, they's a bunch of folks there--Massa Gus, Ball-and-Chain, the house slaves, little Georgie, and right in the middle of 'em is a tall gent wearin' a brown coat and waistcoat, all cut fine. He got a slave with him, and the slave dress better 'n most Virginny massas.
I thinks, This must be Massa Lawrence. He look at me and smile. He have kind eyes and one of them big jaws--a lantern jaw, they call it. And he have a fancy way of holdin' hisself, with his left hand pressed on his hip and his right foot stuck way out in th' other direction ... how they teach 'em to stand in England, I reckon.
He smile at me, but he don't show no teeth, not a big horse grin. You can tell he be a kind massa, a massa you be glad to have.
I like him right away, so I hold up the catfish ... to show him, see.
He say, "That's a fine fish." And he bend down to take a look, but jess then a hand tug at his coat. It'sGeorgie. He say, in this big put-on voice, that he's growed tall enough to sit on the dock and dangle his toes in the water.
"Well, bravo, young George," says Lawrence ... jess like that ... like Georgie done somethin' special jess by growin'.
And now, 'stead of showin' off my fish, I'se yesterday's fish.
Lawrence give Georgie that butter-meltin' smile, and Georgie grin up at him through the big space where he lost his milk teeth.
Massa Lawrence throw his arm 'round little Georgie and say, "Come in, everyone. I brought presents for you all."
But you know what he mean by "ever'one"--ever'one but us.
Ball-and-Chain spit a few orders at us. Then she go in with the rest.
And all the slaves go runnin' off but me. I'se lookin' down at that fish, and I jess can't figger why I feel so bad, see. Thinkin' on it later, I reckon I jess want a man like Lawrence to look up to.
And then Mama's shadow come over me. She's smilin', and she say, "Honey, that jess 'bout the finest catfish I ever did see."
And that make me feel better. She show me how to clean it and bread it and fry it. And I eat it all. Then I feel fine.
But I knows Georgie 'n' me, we ain't gonna be such friends much longer.
Well, suh, George never git no schoolin' in England. Never git much schoolin' anywhere. 'Cause his pa diewhen he's eleven, see. After that, they ain't no money for no schoolin'. Ain't much money for much of nothin'.
Massa Gus, see, he leave his best land, which is Epsewasson, to his first son, which is Lawrence, who name it Mount Vernon. The second son, Augustine, git the second-best land, at Popes Creek. And the third son, George, git put in line for third-best land--a little spread jess across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, called Ferry Farm. Tha's where Ball-and-Chain and her young brood be livin' jess then. Massa Gus move 'em there to be close to his iron furnace. Ferry Farm's a workin' spread, see--small house, tough soil. No fortune comin' from there, jess a good life so long's a boy work hard.
But Massa George--tha's what I call him, now that I'se his personal slave--he tell me someday he gonna be a rich man, a gentleman, with fine horses and fine clothes. And I'se to be a gentleman's servant.
And you know what I thinks? I'se fifteen, damn near a growed man, with a man's beard and a man's ... a man's dick, and his voice ain't even changed, and he 'spectin me to git all happy 'bout how I'se to serve him when he grow up. But I ain't so brave as to say it. I jess ax him, "Now that you ain't goin' to England, where you gonna learn to be a gentleman?"
"From Lawrence," he say. "Mount Vernon will be my school."
So when his ma let him, like when he do good with his tutor or somethin', we head up the road, 'bout thirty-five mile as the crow fly. And when we gits to where we can see the house, Massa George stop and look. It be smaller than today, but he say that somedayhe own somethin' jess as nice, so men respect him like they respect Lawrence.
Now, Massa Lawrence take what his pa give him and what brains he have, and he make somethin' of it. He fight for the king in a war in Jamaica. Git hisself 'lected to the House of Burgesses. Git named military adjutant of Virginny. And git married to a girl from the plantation next to Mount Vernon, a spread called Belvoir.
Yassuh, best thing Massa Gus ever do is move in next to Belvoir, 'cause the Fairfaxes live there, and they's the most impo'tant folk in Virginny. Lawrence's wife, Miz Nancy, she's daughter to Colonel Wil'lum Fairfax, who's cousin to Lord Fairfax, who hold what they call the Virginny Proprietary--all the land on the Northern Neck, stretchin' right the way to the headwaters of the P'tomac, all give to him by the king of England hisself.
The Fairfaxes, they be first-rank folk, and ever' Sunday they invites other first-rank folk for parties and dinners, and sometimes a foxhunt. Ladies always dress fine, and gents always show off how smart they is, and the talk's high-flown stuff 'bout Annapolis horse races and business at Wil'lumsburg, and when somebody makes even a little joke, ever'body laugh like hell.
Yassuh, they's the laughin'est bunch of folks you ever did see ... And why not? If I own all that land and all them slaves to work it, I laugh too.
Massas bring slaves to them Belvoir shindigs, so I go plenty. The time I 'member most, I'se eighteen, and Massa George, he's fo'teen. 'Course, he's bigger 'n me--over six foot already, all ganglin' long legs and arms, big hands, big feets, but scrawny up top, not much in the way of chest and shoulders.
He's wearin' a light blue coat his brother lend him, very fancy, with a lace stock and lace cuffs. I'se wearin' what they call livery--white breeches and coat and a red waistcoat. Them colors come from the Washin'ton coat of arms, see. I always feels funny, all fancied up like a plumed pony, but Massa George go sashayin' 'round the carriage 'fore we leave, actin' like his coat been made special for him. And you know, he look good in it, even if it be a little small in the back.
And when Massa Lawrence and his wife come out to git in the carriage, Massa George's eyes go buggin', 'cause Lawrence be wearin' his Virginny soldier suit, see--red coat, red breeches, red waistcoat, too. He say he wear it sometime to show the folks what a good servant of the king he be.
He stick his arm out and tell George to feel the cloth, and George run his hand up and down that red sleeve, like he feelin' the coat on a fine stallion, and he say that someday he gonna git hisself a uniform jess like it.
Lawrence ax him, "What would you say to wearing the blue-and-white of the Royal Navy, George?"
And Massa George stammer--he done that, see--he stammer, "R-r-royal Navy?"
Lawrence say he been considerin' it.
George say he ain't never consider it a'tall.
And Lawrence say, "Maybe you should."
Me, I don't like this talk, 'cause they ain't no slaves in no Royal Navy. If Massa George go sailin', I go to the fields and hoe tobacco for Ball-and-Chain.
But by the time they gits to Belvoir, they's dropped this talk, and they's goin' on 'bout who gonna be there and who be sweet on who, and all like that.
I'se ridin' up top, 'longside the reg'lar driver, a bighanded slave with the straightest face I ever see ... never smile, never take his eye off what he doin', jess give a twitch ever' now and then to them fo' matched grays.
Massa Lawrence call this slave Homer. But Homer tell the slaves to call him what his mama call him when he's a boy back in Africa: Matchuko.
I say, "Well, you call yourself Matchuko if you wants, and I call you Matchuko 'cause you ax. But the massa call you Homer and dress you in that suit, and they's nothin' you can do to change it, so why don't you do what my mama'd tell you: smile a bit ... Matchuko."
He gimme a look, like if I say more, he throw me right off'n that seat.
Not many with a mouth so quick as mine. All the respect in me git used up on my massas. I don't have none for no slaves, 'cept my mama.
Anyways, we rides on a while more. Then Matchuko say, "You been eyein' my daughter, boy, ain't you?"
And I say, "She a eyeful, Matchuko."
He say, "Well, you keep your paws to yourself. And you call her by what I named her. You call her Rwanda. Don't be callin' her no Alice."
See, he don't smile 'cause his family split up, 'twixt Mount Vernon and Belvoir. 'Course, mos' slave families is split. Most places, the idea of slaves bein' family at all is a joke. What you 'spect, when they call slave gals breedin' wenches, like they's prize mares?
Anyways, 'tain't long 'fore we's swinging up the drive to Belvoir and I hears the hounds. All in front of that big brick house they's bayin' and barkin', sniffin' and snuffin', and all them Virginny gents--and some ladies, too--they's all rarin' to git after a little fox they got caged up on the piazza, up where the dogs can't git at him.
Soon's our carriage pull up, I jump down to help Miz Nancy out. We's all extra nice to her, see. She's a skinny, frail thing, with skin so white you can see the blue veins underneath. This be only the second or third time she been out since her first baby die, jess four months after she born.
But 'fore I can help her, her papa, Colonel Fairfax, come ridin' up on his big black mare, all but knockin' me down, and he look inside the carriage.
Lawrence stick his head out, and in that fancy British way of talkin', he say, "My dear Colonel, a foxhunt was not part of the invitation."
Fairfax answer, "Nor part of the plan, but we trapped a fox last night at the henhouse. Only sporting that we give him a chance to run for his life."
Well, Lawrence pop out of that carriage like he's on springs, sayin' how they's nothin' more excitin' than ridin' good horse after good hounds chasin' a good quarry. George pop out right after, sayin' the same thing, like he done it enough to know.
Colonel Fairfax look in at his daughter and say, "It seems these Washington men love the hunt more than good manners, my dear."
"'Tis all right, Father," she say. "Let them have their fun."
Massa George git all red, like he done somethin' that ain't polite, and manners be the sign of a gentleman,see. So he offer his hand to her, and damn near trip over two dogs sniffin' 'round his feet.
Miz Nancy take his hand, but he have a funny look to his face. Then I see one of them foxhounds--nothin' but a overgrowed beagle, which be nothin' but a mouth and a nose and a asshole--and he be pissin' on the carriage wheel, and it be splatterin' back on Massa George's shoes, but he don't want to start twitchin' about and 'tractin' attention, see. Better to git pissed on than to look bad in front of all them fine folks. So he jess stand stock-still till Miz Nancy git out.
Then, with the dogs barkin' and the men shoutin' and the excitement buildin', Colonel Fairfax call out, "Mounts for the Washingtons!"
A slave bring out a big white geldin' and a nastylookin' roan stallion, too.
Lawrence say, "I'm familiar with that roan, Colonel. I'll take the gelding."
Colonel Fairfax look hard at George, "It seems you'll be riding Fiery Prince this afternoon, son. Are you up to it?"
And George, he jess give his left shoe a little shake and jump for the horse. When he do, the seam on his brother's blue coat split right in the middle, and it split loud--loud enough for ever'one to hear.
But Colonel Fairfax, he like George, like him a lot, and he turn quick to ever'one, 'fore they can laugh, and he say, "Young Washington may be just fourteen, but he bids fair to be the most accomplished horseman in Virginia."
Then he call for the slaves to handle the dogs, and the slaves go chasin' 'round, and the barkin' git louder, and the ladies git all oogly and googly, and the riderspull their mounts, and George handle his like it's a old cow, 'stead of some bad-tempered stallion.
Then Colonel Fairfax give a signal for to open the fox cage, and that scairt little fox stick his nose out and look 'round at all the people and horses and hounds, and he jess leap.
Then they loose the dogs, and they's like a brownand-white wave, see, a wave of foxhound rollin' 'crost the lawn.
Then the bugler give a call, and Massa George hear it 'fore anybody else. He take off on that big horse with his coattails flyin' like wings. And tha's the way I see him a thousand times after ... ridin' to hounds, and ever'body else on his heels.
Now, whilst they's off chasin' that fox, they's plenty for us slaves to do--waterin' the team, washin' the dog piss off the wheels--and when we's done, Matchuko say, "Come on in the kitchen ... git us somethin' to eat."
So we go 'round back of the big house to the kitchen house. They's fires goin' inside and out and a big side of beef turnin' on a spit. I'se lickin' my chops, hopin' I gits a taste, and then I sees her--tall, slim, dark-skinned, and straight as a statue. She's in line with a whole row of gals, all dressed in white shirts and blue skirts, all headin' in the house with trays of food, see, for when the riders git back.
And Matchuko call to her, "Rwanda!"
She glare at her pa and shake her head, like to say, "Don't call me that." Then she gimme a big grin, like she always do.
And I grin even bigger. "Afternoon, Alice."
And if you think Matchuko don't smile 'fore this, you should see how much he don't smile now.
I keep clear of him the rest of the night, but I do what I can to git close to Alice. I help out in the kitchen, carry wood and such, and after a while she tell me how I shouldn't be gittin' my white suit all dirty. I say, "It don't matter, if I can help you." And she gimme another big grin. That gal, she light somethin' up inside me, and it ain't jess a twitchin' in the breeches, if you knows what I mean.
She say, "You ain't no scullion slave, so don't act like one. If you wants to help, carry a platter in the big house."
By now, folks is all finished eatin', see, and we's bringin' in sweets--cakes and cookies and such--and Colonel Fairfax be raisin' his glass, "To young George Washington, first to the fox."
Ever'body cheer. The colonel pull the foxtail from his pocket and hand it to George. They's another big cheer, and George turn red as his brother's breeches, 'cause the colonel say, "First to the fox leads the grand march!"
So Massa's stuck. He ain't had no dance lessons, and he start to stammer somethin', so Colonel Fairfax say, "Come along, George. There's many a fine beauty here tonight. Take one by the hand and lead us!"
And he look 'round, real nervous, till his eyes set on a pretty young gal with jet-black hair and skin so clear it make you see why white folks think they's the prettiest things God ever made. Her name's Fanny Alexander, from down Fredericksburg way, and not much older than George.
He give her his hand. She curtsy. And the players--two flutes and a drum--they start a march. And there be George, with his coat split and yellow splatters onhis stockin's, hardly knowin' how to turn as he go down the room and back, and all the best folks in Virginny followin' him.
I wants to watch, but Alice nudge me and say, "You ain't one of the guests, Jacob. You's one of the servants. C'mon."
So we goes out, and in the shadows, I stop and give her a kiss. And she kiss me back. Yassuh, with all she got.
Music's playin' and night's all warm, and I'se gittin' feelin's and ... well, I press myself to her, see, and ... from out the corner of my eye I sees a white livery coat. Then I gits kicked right in the ass. It's Matchuko, but I can't turn 'round 'cause I don't want him to see the way my breeches is standin' up, like they's a tent pole in 'em.
So Alice whisper, real mad, "Pa, don't you kick him. I can kiss him if I wants."
Matchuko jess say, "You 'member that while you's kissin', they's folks 'spectin' you to be workin'. So 'less you wants to git whupped, git on to work."
And she don't argue no more, 'cause my tent pole's gone, and I'se goin', too.
But a little later Matchuko git me alone and he say, real soft, real hard, "Don't you kiss that girl agin, not till you jump the broom."
Jump the broom ... tha's what slaves do when they wants to marry, see. Sometime a slave preacher hitch 'em, someone who know somethin' 'bout Jesus and 'bout how they do things in Africa, too. But sometime slaves jess go out to the woods and jump the broom, and no papa slave can say nothin', 'cause the papa don't own his daughter. The massa do. And I almost tell Matchuko that.
But he say, "She ain't jumpin' no broom till I say so. I won't see her made no breedin' wench 'fore her time. Y'unnerstand me, boy?"
I ain't no fool. Ain't nothin' to say to that but yassuh.
I jess git on with bringin' platters of cake and sweetmeats in the big house.
Now, I 'spect Massa be havin' a fine time with Miss Fanny from Fredericksburg. And I see her laughin' and chatterin', lookin' like the center of a daisy, and all the young gents, and all the young gals with their fans a-flutterin', they's like the petals around her.
But Massa George, he be over on th'other side of the room, with Colonel Fairfax, Massa Lawrence, and the colonel's son, George Wil'lum. He listenin' hard to these gents, cockin' his head to let 'em know how interested he be in their talk. And their talk be 'bout land. Of all the things they talk 'bout, land be their most favorite. But ever' so often, George's eyes driff over to where Miss Fanny enjoyin' herself. He watch her for a bit, then look down at his shoes, then cock his head and pretend he be listenin' to the gents agin.
By and by, folks is leavin'. They's big torches burnin' all down the drive. Carriages pullin' up. And Massa spy Miss Fanny comin' out of the house. So he go up to her.
You never seen a boy more tongue-tied. He be fo'teen, so he ain't no smooth talker, jess all um's and ah's, and Miss Fanny jess stand there, smilin' up at him in the torchlight, waitin' for him to say somethin', and he's "A ... um ... so proud to have been priv'leged to have ... um ... ah ... been give the opportunity to ... to ..."
Jess then one of the other boys come out, a skinny whippet of a thing, from down Chotank way ... Hesperus Draper. He have a uncle in them parts who been invited to the Fairfax party. So he git to come, too.
He slip right in 'twixt George and Fanny, and without payin' George no mind, he say, "Miss Fanny, I had a fine time dancin' with you. If you'd do me the honor again, I'd surely like to take your hand and take another turn to the music."
Smoother 'n loose cow shit, that Hesperus Draper.
He go runnin' off to his uncle's carriage. And Fanny, she 'scuse herself 'cause her carriage comin', too. And my massa be left standin' there by hisself. He march down the steps and jump in his brother's carriage, and I think the damn thing like to tip over, the way he throw hisself down.
Well, suh, gatherin's like that teach him two things: he need some polish if he hopin' to impress gals and fancy-talkin' gents, and if he want to rise in Tidewater society, he need what matter most--not slaves or money, but land, and knowin' 'bout land.
So one day, back at Ferry Farm, he go out to the shed, out to where his pa leave some of his surveyin' tools--a compass, a tripod, some chains. He bring 'em out, set 'em in the sun, and very careful, he stretch out the chains, he oil the wooden legs on the tripod, and he polish up the brass compass. Then he go to a surveyor in Fredericksburg by the name of Byrne and ax for lessons.
Byrne say, "A boy with such fine tools, so well kept, he must be serious indeed."
And tha's a good word for Massa George: serious. And gittin' seriouser.
All summer he stay home to learn surveyin'. We never go once to Mount Vernon, so I never see Alice. Massa see Miss Fanny some 'round Fredericksburg, but he always say so many um's and ah's to her, and he git so mad at hisself after, he go home and jess lock hisself in his room and study his plats and charts all the rest of the day.
One day in September we's shootin' boundaries at Ferry Farm ... for practice, see. Hotter 'n hell. Rappahannock's movin' slower 'n dirt.
Me and George's little brother Jack, we's the chainmen. George spend a lot of time with Jack. Not so much with the others. None of 'em be near so smart as George, nor so tall, and none of 'em dream no big dreams. S'like Massa come from the same mother as Lawrence, 'long with the same father.
So we's doin' this here survey, when who do we see comin' 'crost on the ferry barge but Colonel Fairfax and his son, George Wil'lum.
Massa git all flustered, wonderin' what they's comin' for. "Ferry Farm is n-n-no place to welcome them," he say. "I can't let them see how we live here."
So we run down to the landin' ... head 'em off, see.
Now, Colonel Fairfax, when he ain't chasin' a fox, he be a nervous-lookin' gent. He have a skinny face and big eyes, like a deer's eyes, and he keep his upper lip pulled down over his lower lip like he's makin' sure nothin' slip out. Why he look like this, why he don't walk the length of Virginny like he own it, is 'cause ... well, he don't. He jess a 'ministrator, like an overseer, workin' for his fat ol' cousin, Lord Fairfax. Lords is higher than colonels, see.
But still, he have some power to help Massa George. He bring two letters--one from Lawrence for George, the other from Lawrence for Ball-and-Chain.
Massa George look at the letters, kind of puzzled-like.
George Wil'lum say, "My father has exercised a bit of influence with the Royal Navy. A midshipman's warrant awaits you."
Massa George stammer, "Wh-wh-when?"
The colonel say soon, but George's mother have to be convinced.
This Royal Navy ain't been talked 'bout these last few months. Now, I reckon, if George go to sea, I'se runnin' away. Jess like my papa done. 'Cause I ain't gonna be no field hand for Ball-and-Chain.
Massa George tear open his brother's letter, read it quick, and say, "Tell him I'll follow his advice. Tell him he's my best friend."
And Colonel Fairfax put his hand on Massa George's shoulder. "I started in the Royal Navy myself, George. 'Tis a fine beginning."
So Massa George ax the colonel, w-w-would he like to come up to the house for tea? The colonel say they have impo'tant business in Fredericksburg, and they has to be goin'. And I know Massa George be thinkin', Thank the Lord.
After Ball-and-Chain read her letter from Lawrence, you can hear her all the way to Reverend Marye's school, up the hill on th'other side of town. And for once I'se glad to hear her yell, 'cause it mean mebbe I don't has to run away.
"Royal Navy?" she say, like she sayin', "Hot poker up your ass?"
Massa George say, "Lawrence and Colonel Fairfax feel 'twould be a fine career, Mother. The colonel himself began as a midshipman."
She say, "I won't hear of it."
He say, "But, Mother--"
"We need you here. You can't be off rottin' on some ship."
He say, "I won't rot."
She say, "Because you won't go."
They's like two peas in a pod--pigheaded, quicktempered ... .
He say, "Lawrence thinks there'll be little opportunity for me here. But opportunity abounds in the navy ... and I'll be an officer of the king."
She say, "Lawrence is not your father. Till you come of age, you won't go to sea without my signature." Then she say she'll write to her brother George in England. If brother George say it's a good idea, son George can join the Royal Navy.
He say, "But it could take nine months to get that answer."
She say, "If Colonel Fairfax is so high and mighty that he can get a warrant, he can get one that don't go bad in a week, like a bushel of damn peaches."
And that was that ... leastways for a while.
Now, 'member how I spoke 'bout him gittin' some polish? Well, he ax his tutor to help him, and the tutor bring him a book put together by some French priests 'bout two hunnert years back, called Youths Behaviour. A book of rules, see, on how to act.
George take to copyin' it down and memberizin' it, and he bring it with him whenever we goes to MountVernon, which ain't near so often enough for me, seein' how I feels 'bout Alice. And even when we's there, that Matchuko watch me like a cat watch a bird. He say if I goes nightwalkin' to Belvoir, he tell the overseer and git me whupped good.
Nightwalkin'--tha's when a slave sneak off to dally with a gal at some other plantation. Massas hate nightwalkin', but they don't do much to stop it, 'cause they know if we don't have a little fun, why, hell ...
I tell Matchuko I stay awake longer and sneak off when he fall asleep, but when I'se there, that big Ebo not only don't smile, he don't sleep, neither, so I only see Alice at gatherin's, where slaves from different plantations git together on Sat'day nights to sing and dance and tell stories 'bout olden times in Africa.
When I'se away from her, I has a funny feelin' in my belly, like a knot. My mama call it love. I call it lack of love.
And it make me mad when Massa have me saddle up and I thinks we's headin' to Mount Vernon, and then he point us south to Chotank, way down the P'tomac. Chotank's mos'ly second-rank farms, see, workin' spreads. But he like goin' there 'cause tha's where his cousins lives and lots of boys his own age, who he ain't tryin' to impress, like that skinny little ferret Hesperus Draper. Down there George fish and play cards and sneak a drink of wine, too.
Now, this one night, they's a card game down in a Chotank barn. They's Cousin Lawrence--'nother gangly, overgrowed Washin'ton--and Eli Stitch and that Hesperus Draper. They's at a table in the tack room, playin' loo. I'se in a stall, hunkered down in the straw to keep warm. Through the door, I can see them playin'and hear the cards shufflin' and flickin'. None of them boys have much money, and after 'bout a hour George git all of it.
So they stop for a spell ... pass the bottle some. And Hesperus tell a story 'bout a gal in Fredericksburg, how she go with him, out behind her papa's barn, and she let him slip his hands under her skirt and she slip hers into his breeches and both of 'em have a grand time.
George act like he ain't interested. But I know he's wonderin' if it's Fanny Alexander that Hesperus be diddlin'.
Then Hesperus come out to the stalls and look me over like I'se some new colt, and he ax, over his shoulder, "Is he a good slave?"
Massa George say, "Serviceable and, on a long trip, companionable."
I thinks, I taught that boy to fish, and tha's the best he can say?
"Someday I'll have me a personal slave, too," say Hesperus. Then he look at me. "Is George a good massa, Jake?"
I say, "Yassuh ... best a slave could want."
Cousin Lawrence say, "Hesperus, where you gonna get a personal slave? You're a farmer's son, with a pa who run off five years ago."
"Don't you speak 'bout my pa," say Hesperus, with a little mad gunpowder flash in his eyes. Then he go back to his normal snide-mouthed self. "We ain't talkin' 'bout me. We's talkin' 'bout Georgie here. He's jess a farmer's orphan."
"Yeah," Cousin Lawrence say, "but he got a important brother."
George give his cousin a nod. "Half brother ... and best friend."
"I aim to be important too," Hesperus say. "I'll get me some land; then I'll get me a good slave."
Then I hears him pissin' in the next stall. And while he's pissin', he still talkin'. "You know, Washington, I was up to Fredericksburg last week ... called on Fanny Alexander."
George look up and jess say, "Oh," calm as he can. He still sweet on her, see. He even writ her some poetry. But she ain't exac'ly invited him for tea.
Hesperus say, "Her and me had a fine chat. Didn't mention you till I brung up that pissin' foxhound. Remember him?"
And George stand up real slow. He be near full height by now, six-and-three, so he tower over Hesperus. Hell, he tower over everyone. But that Draper, he be a banty little rooster, and he come out the stall with a big smile on his face, buttonin' up his breeches.
George look at him, and his eyes git all small, like they do when he's mad.
Hesperus say, "Yes, sir. A good piss always reminds me of that dog. Me and Fanny had a fine laugh over it."
Then he strut back to the card table and say, "Let's play, boys. I'm winnin' my money back from Washington here. Then I'm winnin' that slave away from him, too." Then he straighten his pecker in his breeches, which sometimes a man have to do after he piss.
And Massa George jess say: "'When in company, Draper, put not your hands on any part of the body not usually discovered.' Rule Number Two."
And Hesperus say, "What in hell are you talkin' about, George?"
Massa George pull his book out: Youth's Behaviour,or the Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.
"Oh," say Hesperus. "That damn thing."
"You'd do well to study it," say Massa George.
Hesperus sit down and shuffle the cards and give him a grin. "In or out, George? Tell me quick. I want to win that slave of yours."
George sit down again. "You'll win nothing."
But that ain't the truth. 'Cause all the while they's playin', Hesperus keep talkin', and Massa keep gittin' madder, so Hesperus keep winnin' more.
And ever' time he win, he give out a hoot and rake it all in, makin' a big show of countin' his coin, which a gentleman ain't ever s'posed to do.
Massa George glare at him, and finely Hesperus make a sad face, like he jess comin' back to his senses, and he say, "Sorry, George. 'Do not express joy before one sick or in pain, for that contrary passion will aggravate his misery.' Rule number forty-three."
And that jess make Massa all the madder.
Finely, Draper crane his neck so he can look out and see me. "I hope you brung your gear, Jake, 'cause I'm winnin' you next."
And I thinks, Like hell ... Nobody gonna win me in no card game.
None of 'em seen me slip out the door.
The big moon, it look like the face of God. And the ground, it all look like silver. And I decides I'se runnin' north, I'se runnin' to see my Alice, and mebbe t'gether we run away. I ain't thinkin' too straight, but leastways I'se thinkin'.
I'se smart, too. I go on foot. I knows a horse be easier to track than a shoe-leather slave. So I jess head up the road. I move all night, steady and fast, and turnfor the river near dawn. They's a dock I know where cargo sloops stop pretty reg'lar. I reckon to hide under it till I can sneak a ride up to Little Huntin' Creek, 'tween Belvoir and Mount Vernon. Then I get Alice and run.
I never figger out how they catch me. Guess I ain't so smart after all, 'cause 'bout a hour after dawn, this posse come gallopin' right up to the dock and drag me out like I'se a dog hidin' under a settee. They's Massa George and the card-playin' boys, a bunch of local fellers I ain't never seen, and Cousin Lawrence's pa, a big, bad-tempered Washin'ton who they call Second John of Chotank, like some damn dirt-farm royalty.
He say, "Whup him, George. Whup him now, and whup him here, or that nigger'll run off on you whenever you turn your back."
Massa George, he look 'round at all the folks watchin', and he say, "If it's the same to you, I'll ... p-p-punish him in my own way."
And Second John git real mad. He say, "Listen, boy, we may not do things the way you're gettin' used to seein' 'em done up in Fairfax County, but we know how to keep our niggers. Now, whup him."
"Do it," say Hesperus, "or he'll never respect you."
"He won't," say Second John, "and none of the gentlemen who've helped you track him will either."
I'se thinkin', Oh, Massa, I'll respect you forever, if you don't whup me, but what Second John say, it carry weight. Not havin' the respect of a gentleman posse, even if the most genteel one of the bunch be a second-rank farmer with a secondhand name, tha's somethin' that ain't too good.
So Massa George, he give this tight little nod, and they truss me up, and Second John's overseer, he go to work.
And you know what it feel like to be lashed, even with a knotted rope? It hurt. It hurt in your skin, and it hurt in your bones, too, and it hurt in your heart. Tha's where it hurt most.
Best way not to feel it to be to think on somethin' else. So you think up some hate, so you hurtin' and hatin' at the same time. You know they can do this to you any time they wants. And that make you hate even more. And that hurt even more, 'cause the man you hatin', you like him, see. Leastways, I like Massa George.
And then, that lash hit a few more times, and you fergit the hate, 'cause the pain blinds out ever'thing else, and the lash ain't hittin' skin now. What it's hittin' be soft and wet ... meat flesh, see, and ... hell.
It hurt walkin' thirty mile home, too, with Massa George's eyes diggin' in me the whole way. When he finely say somethin', his voice sound so sad, you think he have his back stripped. "Why did you run, Jake?"
They's two answers to that. The first one he know already. But I say it. "I ain't no animal to be put up for wager."
And he stop his horse. "I told that to Draper after you run off. I treat you better than that. You disappointed me, Jake."
I reckon tha's s'posed to hurt me, too. It don't. I jess tell him, "I run 'cause I'se in love, Massa. I loves a girl from Belvoir."
And he ride on for a time, then he say, "In love?" like he don't think it can happen to a slave. "In love?"
"Have you ... have you jumped the broom?"
"Maybe you should, next time you go to Mount Vernon."
I give a little look over my shoulder and I say, "When that be, massa?"
"Sometime. Sometime soon. Until then, don't run away again."
Well, he don't ever treat me real warm after that. Always fair, but never quite the same. All spring, I'se a field hand, separatin' tobacco seedlin's, pickin' out the good ones, pinchin' off weak ones. 'Tis low work, but I does it and keeps my mouth shut, like my mama tell me.
Then, come Easter, Massa George say for me to saddle the horses. We's goin' to Mount Vernon. And I'se happier than a Christian.
When we gits there, on the night 'fore Easter, I tells Matchuko what I'se plannin' to do at the gatherin' with the Belvoir slaves. I say that I'se jumpin' the broom with his daughter, and he ain't stoppin' me.
He say, "I tol' you, my little girl ain't no breedin' wench."
I say, "She ain't no breedin' wench if I loves her."
And he snort. "Love's jess a word. What you do to prove it?"
And I pulls up my shirt, so's he can see my back. "This ain't no word."
Matchuko look at them scars, and he git up, real slow, go over to the corner and grab his old straw broom, and he say, "Let's go to the gatherin', boy."
Well, suh, me and Alice jump the broom aside this big bonfire burnin' out in a field. Afterwards we eat a fine big ham Massa Fairfax give to his slaves for Easter. Then one of the old men bring out some African drums. And Alice sing this African song, 'bout a lion and a lioness raisin' strong lion babies.
I look at her in the firelight, and I think she be the most beautifullest thing I ever seen. And I look up in that black spring sky, and I see the sparks from the fire risin' up ... risin' up and flickerin' out, and I wonder if we's ever gonna be free to raise strong babies too.
Well, if you's a slave, and your massa's in Fredericksburg and your wife's at Belvoir, you ain't gittin' much chance to make no babies.
One day I ax Massa George why he don't sell me to Massa Fairfax.
He say, "You're the best slave I have, Jacob."
He say this like I'se s'posed to be proud to hear it. But I say, "What if you go in the navy? You won't need me then."
"But my mother will."
Tha's what worry me. Worry me plenty, till one day, in May or June, a letter come, and 'fore she even open it, Ball-and-Chain go to the front door and call George into the house, 'cause they's news from England.
I'se doin' some weedin', and I decide the garden by the big house need some hoein' ... the garden by the window ... the open window.
Ball-and-Chain start in readin' the letter from her brother. She come quick to the part 'bout the RoyalNavy. It say George be better off as a ... a 'prentice to a tinker. It say a common sailor got no liberty, and if George go to sea--this be the part I 'member word for word--'they'll cut him and staple him and use him like a Negro, or a dog.' No, suh, dogs and Negroes ... don't want to be none of them.
And George say, "But, Mother, I'll be a midshipman. An officer."
And she jess laugh. "The cull of a bad litter is what you'll be."
"I'm bigger and stronger and smarter than any other boy my age."
"It'll take more than that in the Royal Navy." And she read from the letter, 'bout how they's too many midshipmen graspin' for too few places, and George'll be at the bottom of the list.
I'se watchin' in the window, pretendin' to work the hoe. Scritch-scratch-scritch. Give a listen. Scritchscratch-scritch. Take a peek.
Massa George have his back to the window, and his mama's in a chair. She sittin' up straight like a new-set fence post, and George standin' up the same way. And nobody givin' a inch. Like always.
He say, "But ... but the Royal Navy is a pathway to becoming a gentleman."
"Be a good farmer and a good surveyor. That'll be gentleman enough."
"I won't be chained to here," he say, and his voice git higher.
She say, "My brother's a man of property, and he writes, 'Don't be hasty to get rich. Don't seek after being a fine gentleman too soon. Let time take its course at Ferry Farm, and you'll be happier than if ever you went to sea.'"
And Massa George, he yell, "I'm goin'."
And she yell, "You're stayin', and that's final."
Then the front door bang open, and George stalk out of the house, mad as hell. He go down the hill, down the path through the trees, down to the riverbank. And all the way he's kickin' at stones and whisperin' to hisself 'bout how he damns that farm and damns his mother and damns hisself for not runnin' away.
He's fifteen, don't forget, and they's no better age for feelin' sorry for yourself, even if you got nothin' to feel sorry 'bout.
He pick up a stone, and he fling it out at the river. Now, the Rappahannock be slow, and not so pretty as the P'tomac, nor near so wide. But wide enough, 'bout seventy yards or so. And that stone jess drop and splash. Then he pick up another one and fling it harder, and I swear it split the difference 'tween the first splash and the far bank. Then he try again, and he git even closer.
I watch from behind a tree, and he jess put all his mad into throwin' them stones, till finely I swear he throw a apple-sized stone all the way 'crost that damn river. All the way. And I thinks, damn but he's strong.
'Tis as if he throw all the mad out of him. Then he jess stand there, lookin' all tuckered out. Then his head swivel 'round, like he's a sharp-eared buck who hear somethin' behind him. And he look right at me. "How long you been there, Jake?"
"Long enough," I say. "And nice throwin', Massa. But I ... I has a question."
"When your mama say we's stayin' here, do thatmean she ain't lettin' us go to Mount Vernon, neither ?"
He say, "We'll go to Mount Vernon, Jake. And other places, too. She won't hold us here forever. So go get my compass and chains."
Copyright © 1999 by William Martin