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By DAVID ALLAN CATES
Copyright © 2008
David Allan Cates
All right reserved.
Chapter One LOVE
WHEN I WAS A boy I had little interest in freedom, but my father did, so when I was seven years old he freed me, and I was sent across the sea with a change of clothing in a little black maw and a rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence that I could not read.
That's true, and so my story begins.
Or I could begin earlier, say, at my conception. There, you might say, if you were the kind to say it, is the Original Sin. The cause of it all! Because my father was the legal owner of my mother, you presume her consent, being unnecessary, was not given. But that would be like saying that songs, being unnecessary, aren't sung.
(Your father, after all, might have taken your mother by force, but do we presume it?)
Of course I'm aware that the Sweet Grass Farm, like the rest of the world, was a place of pain and difficulty, indeed horrors of human suffering-but these horrors happened to other people and not to me. Mama and I lived in a cabin along the river bottom. Our job was to tend the dairy cows, milk them, make butter, and take care of the calves. My parents loved one another and they loved me-I knew that the way a child knows anything, in my body-and I loved them, and was happy for a while.
But all happiness ends. What is unique is the cause. In my case, it was my father's love and aspirations for me, his only son, combined with his obligations to his legal wife and his desire to please my mother that moved him to strike the fetters from my limbs, as he said, and send me to England to study.
The first hint that the day of my new life had arrived-that I was being conceived again-was the carriage. My father was a walker. He rarely even rode a horse. So to see him arrive at the cabin that morning in a carriage pulled by a splendid team of grays was indeed different.
Excited, I ran to greet him, and there received the second hint: a package with new clothes. He lifted me up onto a large flat sitting stump in our yard and helped me dress. I remember his big fingers doing a lot of buttons on the shirt and trousers, but mainly I remember him slipping on the boots. I loved how they looked and smelled, shiny and tall, and I loved how they looked like his boots, but I hated how they felt to stand in. They separated my feet from the earth with a thick sole and heel, and boxed in my toes and weighed down my step. They felt as unnatural to me as a mouth full of cotton.
Nevertheless, enjoying the novelty of the occasion, I happily stepped up into the carriage and took my place across from my father on a soft leather seat. He was dressed in an identical black suit and wore a high beaver-felt hat. He held another one on his lap, which he handed to me. It was a miniature version of his, and I took it with more pride than you can imagine. I put it on. I tilted it at just the same angle as his. The carriage smelled of oil and smoke, and seeing me sitting across from him, booted and hatted just as he was, my father smiled at me in a tight, uncharacteristic way that might have been my third hint.
But what happy child can anticipate losing everything he's ever had? Especially wearing such a respectable hat and hearing the driver click his tongue and feeling the team suddenly lurch forward? Here I must have asked where we were going, because I remember him saying, "To say good-bye to your mother."
Which still did not make me worry. I assumed we were going on an errand, on an outing, and I imagined myself waving from the carriage and Mama looking at me wearing my hat with the same pride and love I sometimes saw in her face when she looked at my father. I imagined all of that, and hoped for it as the carriage followed the trace down to the run where the cattle lolled in the cool shade. Auntie Luck told us Mama was in the field, but when we went there we were told she was in the woods on nature's call. We waited; she did not return. I begged my father to direct the carriage one last time to the cabin, where I was sure she must be by now. I wanted to see her face when she saw me step out of the carriage and walk tall in my new boots and hat.
As we approached, I thought I saw smoke rising from the chimney. We stopped, but instead of making the dignified entrance I'd imagined, I jumped off the carriage and ran through the grass to the cabin door. I opened it and waited a moment while my eyes adjusted to the dark. Was that her bent by the fireplace stirring coals? Before I could call out, she disappeared and the coals turned to ash. My heart dropped and I was about to turn, but she appeared again suddenly, this time standing at the basin, her back turned.
Mama? I didn't recognize my voice. I was not unaccustomed to seeing spirits, but I was used to them being dead. And just that morning, my mother had been alive enough to tickle me awake.
Look at eve, Mama, I said, but she disappeared again. I could smell her, though-so she was close, or her ghost was. Then I saw her on a bench before me at the door shelling peas, her brown face bent over her work.
She wouldn't look up. Her fingers worked the pods. I wanted her to look up and see my new stiff white collar and black suit, see what she'd call my tall civ'lized hat and tall civ'lized boots, see how much I looked like my father.
Look at me, I said again in my new voice.
Finally she did, but her eyes were black and empty. She touched the scar where her left ear should have been. I'd seen the scar but never until that moment understood that there used to be an ear there, that once upon a time she'd had two, just like me.
Where'd your ear go, Mama?
I ran, she answered, and I pictured the ear coming off by the sheer speed of her running.
"Not here?" It was my father, and at the sound of his voice-he sounded terribly sad-Mama disappeared again. The bench was suddenly empty, no bowl of shelled peas, either. Where had she gone? Had I merely imagined her? I felt his hand on my shoulder, then on my hand. I looked again at the empty cabin but felt my father pulling me away. I glanced up at his face, at his long dark nostrils and the cloud of anger on his brow, his slit-mouth deliberately calm. I was disappointed that Mama wasn't there to see me in my civilized clothes, and we hadn't said good-bye, but I couldn't have suspected then what I do now-and what most likely my father knew-that his legal wife, out of respectable spite, had sent my mother on an errand hours ago.
He asked me to close the door and come along. Asked, not commanded, and that was a crucial difference. Because regardless of the fact that I was a seven-year-old boy and did not have a choice at all, it was with my own hand, the one not being held by my father and master, that I closed the door on the old-wood-and-mildew smell of the cabin. Closed the door and turned away from the phantom flesh of my mother.
We got back into the carriage and the driver clicked his tongue and the team began to trot. I watched my father's face as he turned to look out the window at the passing trees and fields in the glaring light of midday. I was waiting for him to tell me something but for a long while he seemed unable to speak. He was not, generally, a distant man. He was playful and quick to wrestle, to tickle, to kiss me. He was a flesh-and-blood body to me. When we walked in the woods, he held my hand. When we sat in the shade, I sat so close his sweat was my sweat, his smell was mine. I can still see his green eyes lively as new leaves and the full flush of his cheeks beneath his thin blond beard. When we played whaler in the creek (I was the whaler, he the whale) he'd throw me in the air and I'd laugh to see water roll off his big white back and monster head.
But that moment, in the carriage, I saw his face as I had never seen it before and his sadness scared me. Maybe because of that fear, and maybe because after too much silence I was suffocating for the sound of his voice, and maybe because when he finally did speak he deliberately touched each of his fingers and thumb before each sentence, and maybe because he used the pronoun we, which served to intensify our intimacy as the horses broke into a gallop and the carriage began to sway-maybe for all of those reasons I have never forgotten what he said to me.
"We," he said, and he touched his little finger, "all suffer."
Then he touched his ring finger, bent it back almost ninety degrees before straightening it again. "And we are all going to die. It's a law of nature. You know these things already."
He swallowed. I swallowed. I watched him touch his middle finger and pause as though he found this one the most difficult to contemplate. He blinked rapidly, nodded beyond me to the passing world out the window, the world we were leaving behind-my mother?
"We are not in control," he said.
I could not take my eyes off him. I tried to swallow again but my throat felt dry and swollen. I was dying to unbutton my collar but dared not.
"It will take becoming a man," he said, "to learn these last two. First-" He touched his pointer. "We do not live for ourselves." Then he made a fist and shook it slightly as if he were holding something precious that he could feel and did not want to let go.
He lifted his thumb and whispered, "But we are free!"
I blinked back tears, swallowed hard, and turned my gaze to the window. That's when he explained where I was going: to the port, to board a ship that would sail with the tide at dawn. I didn't know what to say. The sky was a magnificent blue and the breeze bent the crowns of the trees along the road. Sail with the tide. I had only the vaguest notion of what that might mean.
He pulled some papers from his pocket and showed them to me, although I could not read. One was the rolled-up copy of the Declaration of Independence. He slipped it into my pocket and said it was civilized law-the law of men aspiring to be divine. He said I should keep it and learn to read it. Then he showed me other papers that were folded in an envelope.
"Men's law," he said.
I started to take the envelope but he said he'd keep it for now and give it to the captain. Before he slipped it back inside his coat, he pointed to the two words on the envelope: "James Gates," he said.
I had always been Jimmy. He had always been Mr. Gates.
"James Gates." The words felt odd in my mouth.
"Because you're my son," he said, and smiled.
I wanted to smile, too. He must have sensed my confusion, for he patted the papers in his coat pocket. "Your free papers," he said. I might have asked why I needed those, why they were mine, because he said a word that I don't remember ever having heard before, at least not applied to me. I repeated it, feeling my tongue slide easily across the surface of the sound, closing it with my teeth and lip.
He looked at his watch, seemed for a moment to be calculating the time, and said he'd show me.
So before we boarded the ship he took me to a crowded market. He held my hand as we pushed our way through more people than I had seen in my entire life. I was overwhelmed by the smells and colors, by the sound of so many voices and the sheer variety of the human face. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Were they also going to sail with the tide at dawn?
To abate my confusion, I looked straight up at my father's face, his slit nostrils and long thin nose and the blue sky beyond his head, and that was how I kept my balance.
Soon he halted and liked me by the armpits up over his head to his shoulders, where I straddled his neck and peeked around the sweat-stained crown of his tall civilized hat to see a barely dressed-naked, really-Negro man and woman and two children on a raised wooden platform. Chains connected shackles from their necks to their ankles. I'd never seen shackles before and they terrified me, as did the man pointing to the people wearing the shackles with a long stick and calling out numbers to other men who called out more numbers.
I focused on the children, a boy slightly older than I, and a girl a bit younger. The girl had scabs on the right side of her face and the boy had long muscular arms and black skin shiny as tar, an empty socket where his right eye should have been. The two of them sat in the heat and stared with three spooky yellow eyes at something above our heads.
"Your mother," my father said, "was auctioned away from her parents as a girl, and that's why-"
He squeezed my ankles hanging down on each side of his neck and then turned and walked away through the crowd. I was confused. Was he thinking what I was thinking? Of Mama running, of her ear flying off? From his shoulders I could see down the long street to white gulls flying arcs over the blue harbor.
Just before dusk he said good-bye to me on board the ship. The pier smelled of fish and tar. He assured me that he'd come to visit at the end of the school year but that seemed so far in the future as to be irrelevant. He told me that miserable as it might feel to leave, staying at Sweet Grass would in time make me more so. He said this country was diseased, and he was sending me away to save me. He said he used to think civilization moved west until he'd been to the jungles of Mississippi to visit his brother and seen the horrors of what men do to other men when they can, when there's nothing to stop them. He told me the school in England would take care of me-I'd be taught to read and think, and have a chance to become the free man God meant for me to become. His kiss on my forehead left a wet spot that I resisted wiping even as I stood at the rail and watched him hand my papers to the captain, walk down the gangplank, and disappear across the crowded dock.
It was the close of a hot July day, not unlike the day before or the day that surely followed. Yet when the cool spot of his kiss finally dried, I found myself separated from everything I loved and everyone who loved me.
ON BOARD SHIP I was given my own compartment and then left alone to mourn. In the dark I could feel the pitch and roll of the ship, hear the creak of the timbers and the occasional shouts of the crew. The first morning I dared a peek out on deck, but the sight of the gray sea and the sky forever in all directions frightened me and I quickly threw myself back onto my bunk. I slept and cried all day and night and day and night again. My grief must have alarmed the captain, for he sent for me to be picked up by the ears and carried into the dining area. When I refused to sip the wretched soup, an old man with the dirtiest fingers I'd ever seen pushed rancid chunks of cod into my mouth while he proclaimed over and over again that a boy like me ought to be grateful.
This happened often enough during the voyage that for many years afterward I confused the words grateful with nauseated.
The difficulty of this trip cannot be underestimated. It marked me forever, and even when I say or write the words ocean or ship, I think of that experience and feel again the yawning solitude that swallowed me. I didn't want to cross the sea. I didn't want to study-whatever that meant. And what good was freedom if I had no control?
We all suffer. My father had assumed I already knew this. But I didn't. I was a child. I only knew that I suffered.
I arrived so ill that I remember nothing of my transport from the ship to Hodgson Academy, a half day's carriage ride from London. I remember only waking from my fever on a comfortable bed in a small white room with a table, a chair, and a lamp. Here I was brought regular meals and a change of sheets by a woman with what I assumed must have been a great fear that if she moved her mouth to speak, or smiled, her hard white face would crack like an egg. In silence I was served, in silence my bed was changed, and in silence I was peeked at and prodded for signs of the lingering disease of my diseased country. Night fob lowed day followed night. Had I dreamed water as far as I could see, water that touched the sky? I remembered the plantation and its grasses and trees, the cool stream where I played with my father, the taste of bare dirt outside our door and the salt on my mother's skin, the sound of voices, dogs, cows-the smell of my mother and the cabin: these things had been separated from me by ocean and by time. How much? I didn't know. Did it matter? Once I closed the door on the cabin, the door was closed. It happened-or did I dream that, too?
Excerpted from FREEMAN WALKER by DAVID ALLAN CATES Copyright © 2008 by David Allan Cates. Excerpted by permission.
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