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American Odyssey by Bernadette Kafwimbi Cogswell A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Rita Ciresi, M.F.A. John Fleming, Ph.D. Shirley Toland-Dix, Ph.D. Date of Approval: April 2, 2007 Keywords: slavery, plantation, antebellum, Florida, nineteenth century Copyright 2007, Bernadette Kafwimbi Cogswell
i Table of Contents Abstract ii Preface: My American Odyssey 1 Chapter One: An Unexpected Acquisition 11 Chapter Two: A Dubious Asset 49
ii American Odyssey Bernadette Kafwimbi Cogswell ABSTRACT This thesis consists of the two opening chapters of American Odyssey, a nouveau plantation novel that has its roots in two American fiction traditionsthe nineteenthcentury plantation novel and th e twentieth-cen tury neo-slave narrativ e. It is 1855 and Charles DeCoeurs only motivation to remain Riverwoods owner and master is that his widowed mother and sickly sister rely on the profits of the estate. Charles chafes under the responsibility and physicality of plantation life, unable to reconcile himself to the role of master of a cotton estate in the forgotten heart of East Fl orida. Then a female Negro, Hellcat, wanders onto the Riverwood estate Attracted to the womans unusual appearance and disposition, Charles readily cl aims her as his property. It is not long before Charles channels his ennui into a renewed interest in Riverwoods workings, a thinly-veiled attempt to hide his growing obs ession with the mysterious slave woman. However, tensions are mounting all around Charles. The estate is approaching bankruptcy, the overseer and slav es believe Hellcat has dark intentions, and Charles mother believes the slave is a bastard child from her husbands scandalous past. But Charles refuses to listen to those around hi m and continues to let his desires guide his actions, while Hellcats presence at Riverw ood opens new wounds that threaten everyone around her.
1 Preface: My American Odyssey My American Odyssey began like any other American dream: I aspired to a good educationand to fame and fortunebut I need ed a strong incentive to get started. Thus I wrote the opening twenty pages of American Odyssey to present as my portfolio piece for my graduate school application. I pitche d the piece as a heavy-hi tting historical novel about slavery and antebellum life in Old Florida, which could only be written on Florida soil. The pitch worked and I got into gradua te school on the promise that I would write a novel for my masters thesis. As I started my graduate studies I fe lt bound to write the novel I had pitched (at the time titled Legacy ) though I fancied myself a scienc e fiction or satire writer. However, I already enjoyed reading histor ical nonfiction and my Bibliography class offered me the perfect opportunity to delve in to the subject of slavery, without having to commit to writing anything more on the topic just yet. I undertook a comprehensive bibliography of slave narratives published by American slaves prior to 1820. I was mesmerized by these storiesVenture Smith, an African Prince who bought his way out of slavery and owned more than a hundred ac res of land and a small trade business at his death; Joseph Mountain, a black MacHeat h, who married a British white woman and robbed with aplomb until a lone turn as a seaman landed him on American soil where he was hanged within the week for ta lking to a young white debutante.
2 Intrigued and inspired by these mens pamphlet narratives and court confessions (interestingly, there were no female narratives), I took a more serious interest in my own idea and sat down to flesh out the contour s of my novel. I quickly realized Legacy was a classic case of aiming high without a parach ute. The first hurdle was to examine the question of whose story I wanted to tell. I decided to tell Legacy as a story in three parts, from three different points of viewthe master the slave, and the African. I originally chose multiple racial viewpoints for to reasons. My first reason was two express my own mixed racial heritage. Second, I was afraid that by tackling a book about prejudice I would offend some readers (no small irony), but by letting multiple groups have a voice in the book I was hoping to cover all my political bases. As for the title Legacy it was meant to symbolize that the emotional truth of each view point char acter was in how they negotiated their respective family legacies and also to symbolize that slavery was the family legacy of America. It sounds simplistic in retrospect, but the case was this: having been born American, the daughter of a Caucasian mother from Missouri and an African father from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I of all people, I thought could tell the story of slavery with attention to bot h sides, across the black-white African-American, divide. My genetics guaranteed me access to the variegated racial complexity of slavery, my logic went. If I had not done more research before I sat down to write further, I might have petrified that attitude, much to th e books detriment and my own embarrassment. Luckily, my curiosity was piqued by the preliminary research I had done, but as a new writer I had not yet gathered my courage and still felt unable to competently write
3 tough emotional literary fiction. So I conti nued to go deeper into my research, focusing on acquiring the nuts-and-bolts details of life on a middling Florid a plantation. A few months into the research, a second major hur dle reared its head. I had assumed (an increasingly apparent and frustr ating habit) that researching slavery would be an exercise in unearthing details buried by a lack of records, especia lly concerning slave life. Instead, I quickly realized that there was a w ealth of information a bout slavery, but that I had never bothered to take the time to look it up. Up to that point, the only history I had been interested in was that slavery was abol ished, the civil rights movement had come and gone, and America had risen above most of its tendencies toward racial prejudice. It perhaps does not sound like a hurdle, to be co nfronted with more information rather than less, but the presence of so much history felt like a death knell to Legacy for two reasons. The first was that I knew, as a writer, that I had to deliver something fresh. Yet all the stories and angles already were there in the diaries, pamphlets, legal documents, newspapers, academic journals and works of nonfiction housed in archival collections littered across the U.S. and di gitized in Internet da tabases open to any elementary school child. The fresh was available on Google. The accessibility of slaverys guts made it seem like day-old meat. The second reason I found the wealth of information about slavery discouraging was more insidious and linked to my race. As I read the literature, I noticed a foregone agreement among modern scholars and write rs of slaverythat slavery was not American history, it was African American history. This was the same presumption I had made when considering my qua lifications as a writer of slav ery. Seeing it on paper, in
4 the way that black authors held proprietorship of black life in the antebellum South while white authors held ownership of slaverys ec onomics and political trends, illuminated the underlying mistake I had been making. I t oo had been treating slavery as African American history. I realized that researchi ng slavery for me had meant researching slave life, the black experience. But my own fam ily was partially white. So where were the masters? If slavery were my reality today, where would my mother be? My heritage was important, but for reasons other than I had thought. At this point, I set all the research aside and I tried to open a dialogue with myself. Was I telling a story I was interested in if I used multiple points of view? Or was I writing the story how I thought it should be told, to be politically correct in the face of prejudiced history? I scrapped the idea of multiple points of view, honestly afraid that it would be perceived as a cheap attempt to mediate the brutality of the white master while celebrating the strength of the black slave. However, I could not wrap my mind around writing solely from the slaves point of view either. They say write what you know, and I knew nothing of the 19 th -century African American experience or even the African Ameri can experience. I myself had returned to the U.S. at age twelve after living in Kenya, and often felt, even into my twenties, that the U.S. was a foreign country and its history a sordid oddity, not a pers onal inheritance. I decided to try and bypass the problem altogeth er by telling the story from the point of view of the African woman in my novel, who had joined the plantation to observe slavery, my own childhood in Africa making me suited to the tactic of writing from an outsiders perspective. It was a solution to the conundrum of writerly authority and
5 accountability and, I hoped, the final hurdle to opening up a space where I could just sit down and actually write. At this stage, I signed up for an African American Literature class, thinking that it would help me acclimate myself to the task of writing about sl avery as fiction and guiding me in the direction of historical details that might be good fodder for my own novel. By then, I might have guessed that anot her mental set-back was in the offing, but I went in bright-eyed and bushy-ta iled and ready to start drafting Legacy in full. The class covered a literary tradition know n as the neo-slave narrative, a genre of novels written to give voice to the hidden life of the slave and written almost exclusively by African American authors. I careened into anothe r hurdlethe skeleton of slavery had been rattled by a generation of writers before me. In the pages of Arna Bontemps Black Thunder Sherley Anne Williams Dessa Rose, and other works, the suppressed voice of the slave already had been written with resounding clarity. Here were the hidden stories that the plethora of court documents, personal diaries, newspaper articles, and pamphl ets of the antebellum days had left out. Here was the underdog of American history rising fierce. No t only that, but these authors had rattled the bones and rattle d them brilliantlyt he ultimate case in point, the success and honors earned by Toni Morrisons Beloved This left me with my Legacy and no idea how to move forward. At this point, I considered tossing out the idea all together and declaring slavery not my field, consigning Legacy to the circular file. I told myself my American dream still could be had with some other storyI could write something, get my graduate degree, publish my thesis novel, get famous, sit down with Oprah. Isnt
6 that the American wayit isnt the cost of how you achieve the dream that matters, but how far you rise with the dream youve got? At last the research and reading paid o ff. That was the heart of the dream of slavery, I realized: the self-made man could be home grown on American soil. With slaves and white gold, Everyman could atta in the heights in th e Cotton Kingdom. It occurred to me that I had been approaching my novel of slavery from the wrong angle. I would not tell the story about race, which was already open to the public record, but about the price America paid for its greatest exportthe American dream. I changed the novels title from Legacy to American Odyssey to signify Americas slave history, like a lost father riding out the eddies between Scylla and CharybdisNorth-South, blackwhite, past-present. America was still unwil ling to bring home a full awareness of the exploits of its forefathers and had settled in stead for a dirty-war type policy of limited situational intelligence about the methodologies and practices of the peculiar institution. That was when I decided to write the novel in earnest and solely from a white male plantation owners point of view, to explor e the mechanics of how the American dream became embittered by allowing the self-made ma n to be made off the backs, bones, and blood of other men, women, and children. That was when the business of writing got dicey. The reality of the writing for me was that I had been rais ed in an all-white household, and as I read the neo-slave narratives I became aware of how wide the gulf of cultural heritage could be, even when you shared a common national history. I rule d out the idea of writing from the slaves point of view because I was afraid that when I sat in that chair on the Oprah show (the
7 dream was still alive) I would be called to account for the re ality of my experience. You can fake an accent, but not an attitude. Beyond that, I felt that writing from a particular point of view because I should defeated the purpose of American Odyssey and highlighted the very issues I wanted to tack le: What do I feel about slavery? What do I know? Who told me the story and why was it told that way? How did the American dream go so wrong? Sentimental novels such as Gone With the Wind told me that slavery meant every man with grit and ambition could grow his ow n Tara. The neo-slave narratives told me that Tara was the Devils Disneyland. But I felt these were both my America. So how could I put this unhappy family back together again, where I could see the history for myself, the real history and not the romanticized, demonize d, or mythicized history? I challenged myself to try and open a dialogue with America a bout our history of slavery and let my reader join in that dialogue. I decided that the best way to do it was to steal a page from historys book: black and white history are what make slavery a tr ue American story, but the reality is that, even with the neo-slave narra tives and the changes in scholarship, the history is still dominated by the specter of the white master So the trick would be to frustrate the reader and myself with the sens e of absence that official hi story leaves, w ithout actually treating slavery like anything less than a racially integrated, American experience. I wanted to capture the idea that the Old Souths American dream was built on black slavery, and that Americas rise to a firstworld nation was, in part, built on the Old Souths dream.
8 However, I did not want my readers to f eel that the white master was the bad guy in the novel, or that the black slaves we re the good guys. It was too easy to play demons and angels. That was when I altered a character I already had in play, to fill in the necessary role of villain. It would be Hellcat, the African woman who had joined the plantation voluntarilya demon seemingl y incarnateand the silent observer of American slavery. This was a character that would be so dark, mysterious, and unreadable that we would want to know her a nd wish that the voice of Charles, the white owner, was not the only one accessible. Here would be the sense of absence and withholding that I wanted to create. The ultimate catchthat Hellcat would represent Slavery in the novel. The maste rs lust for her would be the masters lust for the dream; the slaves rejection of her w ould be their reject ion of enslavement; and her relationship with the children of both sides would be the specter of the father, American slave history, come to haunt the inheritors. The premise was solid, the execution wa s more difficult. Although I had bypassed the need to focus solely on the antagonism between master and slave by giving them a common enemy in the form of the mysterious Hellcat, there were still moments in the novel where the tensions erupted and violence flared and th ere was still the matter of writing from a male point of view as a woman. I could not push the master too far or he became unsympathetic; I could not push the sl aves too far or the delicate balance of power and authority became unimaginable. I was constantly baffled by unforeseen emotional conundrumswhy didnt the slaves all run? Why didnt they murder the master in his bed? Why did the master conti nue in an industry that was more likely to
9 bankrupt him than make him rich? Could the ma ster love or respect the slave? And what do men think about? I answered the questions as best I coul d, but realized that the precedents for answers were few. The record was filled wi th demons and angels, but very few men and women like me or you. I made do with my own experiences, believing that the nation and slavery were built on individuals, most of whom were not Douglasses or Jeffersons. As for writing from the male point of view, it was easier than I expected. My character was a twenty-two-year-old male and I was a college student. Campus life and a few close male friends provided ample room for observation, and observation is what writers do best. Writing from the male point of vi ew ended up being a blessing in disguise because I presumed nothing about Charles em otions, reactions, or decisions and fought to let his character come thr ough honestly, not as I wished him to be. If the protagonist had been a woman I think I would have presum ed too much and used our shared gender as a trump card, much as I had mistaken race to give me insider knowledge of the black slave experience. The writing of American Odyssey progressed, and mostly went well. I continued my research as needed. When people as ked me what I was writing and the words slavery and plantation ow ners point of view came together, the response was resoundingly, Why? Not the why of curios ity, I think, but th e why of a skeleton rattling and the children trying to keep the door closed. The children, unable to make satisfactory reparations for the sins of the fathers, had granted the African American community racial proprietorsh ip as the voice and judge of American slavery because the
10 price paid was higher for the slave than the master. The question people were asking me then was not Why did you? but How dare you? Their reaction highlighted one of the wounds that slavery left on the American cons cience and I was willing to write it. Or salt it, as the case may be. As a writer, I knew I had the novel in ha nd when the history came alive. I remember the day it all paid offthe research, the emotional tug of wars, the conversations within and without. I was liste ning to an African American hip hop artist singing a Billboard hit, in my car, at a red li ght. It was raining a nd the heat was blasting in the car. The singer was shouting out, If niggas wanna act, we can act. Instead of the not really the n-word n-word, I heard the vo ice of my white overseer, in a scene I had written earlier that day, bello wing, Step lively, niggers, he ard the crack of the whip instead of the buzz of my rearview mirror. And I thought, If today we had slavery, American Odyssey would be a way of life, not a novel. It would be mothers story at the big house, out of my reach instead of a phone call away; my story in the slave quarters, instead of on my way home from school; and my fathers story of Africa haunting us both. And the Masters degreewel l that would be just a dream.
11 Chapter One: An Unexpected Acquisition Charles DeCoeur adjusted himself in the saddle and spat on the ground. Grit still remained at the back of his jaw. He spat again, but the dust was lodged too deep in his teeth. He sighed and tugged on the reins to keep his mare from breaking into a trot. He was sure she was anxious to be rid of him because the heat was so cloying and wet. He compromised by pulling her toward the stripes of shade on the edge of the dusty drive to Riverwood. The two-story white house, the peeling pain t hidden from so far away, loomed in a mirage before him. This Sunday, early Ja nuary of 1855, was the worst day of church he had been subjected to yet. He winced to remember the stares from Thompson and Koenig at the miserable service. Bo th menwealthy menhad eyed the two empty seats in his reserved box. He was even more mortified to remember the gentle pats from Mrs. Koenig and the careless smiles from Th ompsons two eligible daughters. Even the Koenigs deaf one had barely bothered to acknowledge himand she should have been pining for his attention, as he was th e only unmarried son in Conrad County. He tried to imagine some appeasing fairyt ale to tell his mother when he reached home. Riverwood wavered nearer now, his mare whinnying in delight at the prospect of unburdening herself. He jerked the reins, halting her, and leaned down over the pommel, watching a drip of sweat spla tter the dusted leather. Hi s brother Henrys saddle, he
12 thought with a grunt. Henri, he should say. That was what was writ ten on his brothers headstone, Henri DeCoeur, a name to recall th eir fathers Louisiana French ancestry. But Floridians did not go in for fancy names and his brother, being Florida-born, had gone by Henry in life. If only the ambitious bast ard hadnt died. Charles considered riding through the woods to delay th e inevitable reunion with his mother, but the burning sensation on the back of hi s neck cautioned him. His mare shifted under him and he released his grip on the reins, allowing her to break into a trot and close the gap between himself and his home. He rode to the front and dismounted. He waited for his boy, Tom, to come around and stable his horse, but minutes pass ed and he stood alone. He took out his kerchief and wiped the acrid sweat off his fo rehead, spitting futilely again, then tugged the mares reins to stable her himself. He found himself glad his slaves had grown unresponsive since Henry died. It freed him to do little tasks himself, the better to keep him from the house. Henry would have made a show of having Tom whipped and a new boy placed with the horses. Charles shook hi s head, freeing more sweat from under his hairline. He truly was glad the bastard was dead. And he had no in tention of bothering himself about some Negro. He patted the mare and placed her in her stall. He went to get her a handful of oats, but a weevil dippe d beneath the surface of the feed, giving him pause. He stared into the sack for a mo ment longer before jamming his hands in his pockets and leaving the stables. His mother called Conrad County the pest ilent bosom of East Florida. He wandered across the lawn, listening to the chirp of crickets and the whine of mosquitoes
13 and gnats at the height of noon. The withered remains of the vegetable garden behind the house baked in the unusual January heat. He remembered that when he was young it had offered up strawberries, squash, and lettuces enough to feed the DeCoeur family of nine. Now it offered up stunted shoots that wilted and fed only his slaves pickaninnies. He stopped for a moment and debated be tween entering the house and going off somewhere else. Judging by the sun, it was just after noon. His mother still might be delivering her religious ravings in the quart ersif he were lucky. But he was never lucky these days, so she was surely in the house. He headed for the slaves cabins. Perhaps Luke, his foreman, would humor him with a drink and a game of cards. The ledgers would wait until the heat subsided, he reasoned, or at least the sun went down and the heat stopped bringing out the smell of fish and salt water that scented the soil even so far inland. He knew what the books would say and he did not yet have the energy to read them. As he neared the cluster of slaves ca bins, the sound of raised voices clamored over the hum of the woods, palms, and vine s that contained Riverwood. They sounded excited to him, but not like the Negroes at ch urch. They were angry, or frightened. He quickened his pace toward the cabin of Wills, one of his two Negro slave drivers. When he was near enough, he saw his group of twenty or so adult slaves and his mother, her pale blue Sunday church dress emphasized by their dark skins. Wills and Charles mother were staring into the woods next to Wills cabin as if they had spotted a bobcat. A few of the slave women were clutching their children. He spied the negligent Tom
14 toward the front of the group, standing in a half-circle before his mo thers place on a pine chair from the kitchen. Wills caught sight of Charles. Massa going to look, he said, shooing a line through the slaves and pickaninnies to let Ch arles pass. The slaves spread and pressed toward a clump of fan palm at the edge of the woods, the little ones swaying to see past the thighs and hips of the older ones. L et him through, Wills demanded. Dont crowd round now like no vultures. Massa going to look. Charles wished Luke were here to see to the upset. Later, he would have a few choice words with him. He freed his hands from his pockets to push a few stray bodies from his path. He came up to the edge of the woods and looked around, seeing nothing. Get Luke, he said. Yes, Massa, Tom said from behind him. Wills waved Charles forward. Charles got close enough to see clearly, but careful to stand a little behind Wills. Brown ey es, the rest hidden behind the green fronds, looked at him over Wills shoulder. Come forward, Charles said. His voice wa s too calm even in his own ears. He cleared his throat. Come forward! The ey es remained impassive. Charles motioned Wills to pull the individual forward. Wills pushed the palm leaves aside and hesitated when he saw the unclothed woman behind. She stood inches above Wills six-foot frame. Her long limbs were thin, but propor tionate, her breasts small and sagging. He thought her hair must have been covered with mud, until he saw that both the thicket at her hips and on her head were a dark cinnamon. Her features were br oad, her eyes wide-
15 set like a fish and her lips full. She opened her mouth in a pant, revealing gums and teeth of a cayenne color. Charles waited for her to say something or Wills to pull her further forward, but Wills hesitated when he saw her nakedness. Charles cursed his luck that Wills was so much like him. Charles hesitate d a moment more before he stepped forward and pulled her from the woods himself. Her skin was cool and soft, like a soap cake. Speak up, nigger! What are you doing he re? He shook her a little, his eyes wandering toward her breasts. A sharp gasp from behind him reminded him his mother was watching. He shifted his weight nearer to the stray woman to hide her body from his mother and allow himself to have a good look. For Gods sake, cover that nigger girl up! his mother cried. Its disgraceful. That, that thing coming like that out of our woods! Charles saw Wills move away to get some thing to cover her up. The stray stared at him, mouth parted, eyes unblinking, until he felt goose chills, even in the sunlight. He detected no odor from her, over the scent of th e woods. If he closed his eyes he could imagine he was holding a stone from the bottom of a river. Except that he could hear her breathing, a breezy sound. Perhaps she carried di sease. He released his grip and stepped back quickly, cursing his imprudence. A white hand reached around him and took the womans wrist, sliding it to an awkward angl e that caused her to cr y out. Luke stepped around Charles, pushing the girl to her knees and examining her body and face. Where you from, nigger? Luke asked. You run away? The woman stayed silent, though her long finge rs worked at Lukes where he held her wrist.
16 Aint you got no shame? Luke asked. Wills tossed ripped sacking at the womans feet. She ignored it and continued to work at freeing her wrist. Charles stepped back. Luke was gripping the woman so tight that his knuckles were turning white, but the woman seemed determined only to free her wrist, insensible to the pain. You from one of them Seminole camps? Luke demanded. Got yourself a red husband and some half-breed pickaninnies ? The woman had succeeded in prying a finger loose. Luke looked at Charles and Wills, his mouth set in a frown more of bewilderment than anger. Shes a ox this one, he said in ad miration as she pried another finger loose. Charles felt a hand grip his shoulde r, digging its nails into his skin. Charles, his mother hissed from behind him, do something, Charles! Go inside, Mother. This is an outrage, Charles. In the middle of my preaching! Shes one of those women from town, or a mongrel of the Indians. Shes rabid, I am sure of it. Look how her gums bleed, she said, cutting into his s houlder so hard that he slapped her hand to free himself. Luke gripped the womans mouth and shook her chin. Open your mouth, he said. The woman continued her si ngular attention to his fingers. Luke released her wrist and pulled her to her feet. Stepping closer, he was just shy of her fu ll height. Hold her, boy, Luke said to Wills.
17 Wills picked up the sacking and draped it over her shoulders trying to pull it loosely over her breasts, be fore he moved behind her. Luke laughed. Tiny! Get up here, nigger. We need a boy with some size to hold this here heifer. Tiny, the other Negro slave driver at Riverwood, came up and exchanged places with Wills. He tried to get a grip on her arms, but she shrugged him off. The sacking fell away and she escaped half-way into the palms before Tiny got hold of one arm and pulled her back. He crossed her arms over he r breasts to cover them. Charles shifted uncomfortably at a queasiness in his stomach. He had nearly forgotten the heat, but now his shoulders were on fire underneath his linen. Luke forced the womans mouth open. He scraped some of the red on her gums free and sniffed at it. Not blood. Smells like some sort of thing the mammies get up to, he said. Then he looked closer into her mouth before stepping away and shrugging. She aint got no tongue neither, he said in disgust. Might be Hamilton, over at New Indias, work. Elsewise, might be a Indian runaway or one from up North. He shrugged again and crossed his arms. Charles cleared his throat, running his t ongue nervously over his teeth. Put her in the stables. Well see wh at to do about her tomorrow. Luke raised his eyebrows. You dont want her in with the rest ? he said, waving a hand at the crowd of slaves shifting from foot to foot and cut ting their eyes between Charles, Luke, Tiny and the stray. They can see to her until youve a mind what to do with her.
18 He couldnt change his mind now. Luke liked him well enough, but he followed his requests out of an amia ble spirit, not respect, and Charles was tired of it. Do as I say, Luke. Luke shrugged and tipped his hat to Charles before turning away to the task. Charles started back to the house. A tongue less stray nigger woman. He wouldnt be rid of his mother for the rest of the day now, even if he pretended to be working on the ledgers. Charles and his mother and younger sister, Delilah, were seated at dinner when his mother raised the subject of the Negro woman again. Shes done something terrible, Charles. You should have had her taken into town, his mother said, taking a sip from he r third glass of wine and fussing with her napkin. Any woman who brought th at on herself is sinful, Char les. Your father would have given her to the jail and le t them see to the rest of he r punishment. You should take a lesson. She dabbed at her lips in a nervous gesture, a remnant of th e hysterical fits she used to feign when his father was still alive. Henry would have done as your father did if he were alive. Delilah shifted in her chair, scratching at the table cloth with one finger. She looked up at him, her eyes wide with femi nine dread and delight. Supposing she was a prisoner of the Seminoles? Father has an account of a seaman that was captured by natives off the Gold Coast and they di d such things and made delicacies
19 Be quiet, silly girl, his mother comm anded. Its a wonder that you havent frightened yourself to death reading such vile nonsense. Delilah rubbed her arms gingerly and shiver ed. Charles smiled at her reassuringly and she smiled back before resuming her usual dreamy gaze, contorting her napkin in her hands. He stared at her yout hful face of sixteen. A woma n, he reminded himself. But for her naturally ill constitution he would have been anxious to save monies to send her to New Orleans, in proper style, for the season. His eyes drifted ove r her chestnut hair, which clung at her temples in fine wisps. His mother had given up pulling the fine hair back; Delilah could not with stand the pain on her scalp, which had not deterred his mother until Delilah had begun showing bald pa tches. A few months of freedom had healed the spots, but his mo ther had never forgotten it. He was most fond of Delilahs olive eyes the hallmark of his family, though hers were flecked with apricot around the iris. So br ight, curious, alive. So unlike the rest of her body. Her frame jutted out at inappropriate places beneath the layers of cloth that his mother had padded her in this evening: an edge of collarbone under her lace, a knob of wrist below the sleeve, a ripple of vertebra beneath bloomers and yellow linen. The soft colors that his mother used to try and hi de Delilahs translucent complexion only drew attention to it. The yellow framed the bl ue rivulets running along her neck and under her youthful hands. Charles looked away from her to quell the rising ache in his chest. She had been born to illness. The past year she had su ffered twice from fevers and once from a cough that had wilted her from slight to lean. She was too unwell to travel to White Sulphur
20 Springs where she might have been able to reco up her vitality. He grunted to himself. Even were she well enough, he could not afford to pay her passage. Dont make such grotesque noises, Charle s. I dont know what I shall do with you. How shall I secure you a wife who will be mistress of Riverwood if you grunt like an Irish coachman? His mother sighed heav ily and dabbed at her lips again. Dreadful creatures, lounging on every corner in New York Such a shame that America is so rich, were quite overburdened with immigrants. You cant imagine the winters in New York, Charles. Paddies, Krauts, and Jews begging on every corner. I should have thought all the factories would have been enough for the lot of them to find employment. But my poor New York was quite overburdened with them. He gritted his teeth against this reminder of his impoverishment. He should have been in Europe, taking a years travels to acquaint himself with France and Germany and to see Londons fine factories for himself. Damn Henry to hell. Charles felt he should have been dining in Madrid or some other c ity of quality. But Henry had died and left him master. Even one year later, he felt galled by his misfortune. And his mothers reminders of her wealthy New York upbringing only made his acids churn more. Charles pushed the first course of orange and grapefruit slices around his plate. Something would have to be done about the vege table garden. The slaves had little to do in the cotton fields since planting season wa s some weeks away. He could make them irrigate the garden with water carried up from the pond.
21 His mother put a miniscule bite of fruit in her mouth. Refreshing, she said to no one in particular. She set down her knife and fork and rested her hands under her chin to look at him. You cannot ignore me, Charles. You will take the girl away tomorrow? Charles followed Delilahs dreamy gaze out the window. You should eat something, Lilah, he said gently. She started and then smiled at him. An Indian princess, she said, taking a small bite of orange before putting he r silverware down with finality. Dont be ridiculous, Delilah, his mother fumed, picking at her own salad. She was a nigger if ever I have seen one. My God, the height of her. Like some sort of great beast. If her features werent so wide a nd unpleasant, I might almost have taken her for Spanish. We used to dine with the daughter of the Spanish ambassador. They were such a short ride from my familys home in New York. On a good summers day, I would have one of my gentleman callers escort me. Charles sighed. In any case, his mother continued, the ambassadors daughter used to hold her eyes just so. Nothing proper about the look of her either. She sniffed. My mother used to fret that they did not have the reserve and quality our New York girls did. So close to Paris, debauchery was only natural, she would say. I believe she quite nearly died when my brother took fancy to one of the ambassadors daughters. Mind, they didnt have the resources to suit my fathers requirements, so she had nothing to fret about. But she was a nervous woman and quite domineering. Rest her soul. She took a
22 sip of wine before continuing. But such a punishment for a Spanish woman, if shes even that Tilly, the cook, took away thei r salads and replaced them with the main course, a sort of roasted pork, fresh cucumbersGod he lp them, from the gardens in the slave quartersand more citrus. The citrus wedge s were honey striped where they had been roasted with slices of onion, in place of vegetables. He si ghed and tried a slice of red grapefruit. It was warm and bitter. I suppose such an ordeal wouldnt drive them to madness like it would a proper woman. Spanish women are graced with a kind of unfortunate mettle. Aggressive appetites, he offered. The h eat made each bite force a little more sweat to well on his upper lip. His mother nodded in agreement. They are still quite famous for the number of bastards they left in East Florida. Its no surp rise they forfeited the te rritory to us. Its a wonder every nigger and half breed in the st ate wasnt a relation of the old Spanish Governor. Imagine raising daughters in such a place, she said, half laughing beneath the weight of her third glass of wine before eyeing Delilah. Or keeping husbands, Charles said quietly. His mother looked at him sharply before centering her attent ion on the remainder of her tenderloin. Yes, well, weve begun br inging the Good Word to East Florida. Sodom and Gomorrah takes many forms, she saidmore to herself, he gathered from the way she picked up her wine glass and dr ained it before looki ng out the window. He
23 knew she was thinking about his father. My God, the government allowing those marriages to Negroes before we were ceded to America, she finished quietly. They ate the rest of supper in silence, his mother occasionally giving Delilah a look, but saying nothing. De lilah ate nothing and Charles was too discomfited by the heat to care. Let his mother fuss over her or not, as she chose. Tilly brought out dessert and the fragrance of sweet acidity sent his st omach roiling. Unfortunately, it also seemed to displease his mother, who set to badgering him again. Really though, Charles, do you suppose its safe to keep something like her? Here at Riverwood? We have no idea why she was punished, but it must have been terrible. And, she said slyly, I saw the way Luke looked at her. Charles kept his eyes on his desert plate. Riverwood has always been a peaceable es tate, his mother went on. We have never had troubles with our ni ggers. Your father managed with a firm hand and theyve never carried on like some of them do. As an afterthought she added, And the estate hasnt suffered too greatly under your hand. Though sometimes I wonder that I should have raised a man who thinks himself a boy at your age. I suppose I am too tenderhearted with you. Perhaps they took out the womans tongue because they tired of her prattle, he said, nearly toppling his chair as he backed away from the table. He escaped the dining room into the open air of the hallway and went upstairs to his fathers study, locking himself inside. He opened the windows and poured himself a whisky. He took a long drink before sitting down at the desk and lighting a pipe. The
24 silence told him Luke and Wills had gotten all the slaves down for the night. An occasional whinny and the drone of insects was all he heard. He stood up again to gaze out the window. His father had been a comp etent merchant and an able captain, but his turn as a landed gent was grossly lacking. Charles blew out a stream of smoke, watching it whirl in the thick air. Riverwood. An ironic misnomer, Charles thought bitterly. The plantation was some twenty miles or more from the Black River and the nearest, lucrative, timber lands were in Middle Florida, well to their north. Not that he truly cared. He found running the estate tedious and aggrav ating. Always, something was broken, something thieved by the dissolute slaves, some crop failing, some price dropping. The sheer volume of daily irritations and setback s confounded him and cost him many a nights sleep. He had been prepared for the life of a gent in the North, perhaps a banker or partner in an investment firm. Anything that would have kept him in the city where he could have joined a mens club and read the newspaper at a caf. He looked over the desk and th e stack of planters journals he had been avoiding. He had no desire to know the best use for horse offal or the quickest way to breed slaves with more submissive temperaments. And all the rumblings from the north, he certainly didnt wish to know about those. He supposed he should be grateful; the heat in Florida kept his slaves fairly docile. For months it had just been Charles, his mother, and sister. Never once had they feared from the forty or so slaves. No one had the energy. And they ha d lost few runaways because the woods were nearly impenetrable. Florida was the perfect state for plantation lifethe very terrain prevented anything from escaping. His father and brother before him had been heavy-
25 handed with the slaves, for their own amusement. He saw no need to bother himself with them any more than necessary. Tho ugh the dense wall surrounding Riverwood, and Conrad County beyond, also meant nothing cam e in. Almost nothing, he corrected himself, thinking back to the dark giantess. A soft knock came at the door. He opened it warily. Delilah stood in the hall. Company? she inquired. He pulled her into the study, locking th e door behind her. Ive had enough of mother for one day, he said. You can go into town, Delilah said wistfully. I can only imagine, my poor dear sister, he said, waiting for her to seat herself in an armchair before wrapping her legs for her in the grey wool cover he kept in the study just for her. Do you think shes a sava ge princess? she asked. Mothers right, Lilah, dont be a silly little girl. Delilah sighed. The social season starts in a few months. He closed the windows. Youll have to rest up, Lilah. I imagine all the beaus will be exchanging blows for a place on your dan ce card. Your beauty is irresistible. She gave him a look, but he caught the spar kle in her eyes. You tease, Charles, but its possible Ill be more well by then. Mother says the Koenigs might be holding a ball in Conrad this year, instea d of going North for the season. They dont have an eligible daughter left. I imagine they want a season of rest. They still have Elizabeth.
26 He frowned. I dont imagine they have much hope for her. Pretty enough, but deaf. No, I dont think they plan to marry that one off. Delilah was silent for a long moment. Char les lit another pipe and poured himself a second drink. I wish for her to marry, Delilah said. Charles took a long drink. I dont see how you would care, Lilah. It would be someone new. We dont have so many new people here Charles. None that visit me. But he might visit with his wife. It would be shameful not to visit his neighbors. It should be a very boring conversati on with Elizabeth, he said, laughing. Women dont need as many words as men do, Delilah replied. He sat on the arm of her chair and kiss ed her lightly on the head. And what would you know of the ways of me n and women, my dearest? I am rather intelligent, Charles. Of course you are, dearest. He stroke d her head mildly. Mother was quite drunk at supper. Do you suppose you could speak with her? Delilah shook her head. Shes lonely, Charles, and frightened. All she does is talk about New York. She doesnt think Conr ad is any place for women. Certainly not a widow. She doesnt listen to what I say, a nyway. She stood up abruptly, throwing her cover to the floor and walki ng to the window to press her cheek against the open glass.
27 He gave her a moment before he pul led her gently away from the window, picking her up and setting her b ack in the chair, retrieving her cover and tucking her in again. She leaned back and closed her eyes. He closed the windows. Youll tire yourself, Lilah, he said gently, seating hi mself on the arm of the chair again to stroke her hair. Just have a word with her. Shes been unbearable the past few weeks. Shes not happy about the girl you found today. I dont think shell sleep until shes gone. Nonsense. She thinks its Daddys bastar d come back to kill her. Charles laughed heartily. Well, in that case, leave her be a few days and say nothing. Delilah frowned at him. Thats cruel, Charles. We know shes not Daddys bastard. Wills is Daddys mulatto. And we both know why we dont tell moth er that, he said, taking her chin gently in his hand. Of course, silly, she said. She pulled away and jutted out her chin. You can count on me Charles. Im not one to talk. Mother would do something terrible if she knew. She hummed for a moment. And I like him. We cant have that. Of course not. We promised Daddy a nd Henry that we wouldnt tell. He rubbed his jaw. She thinks the nigg er is Daddys? Ar e you sure, Lilah? She said so in the parlor before dinner. She was nearly in tears.
28 Imagine my luck, he said. What will you do with the nigger? If she isnt a runaway, or at least not one who can be cl aimed, then I imagine Ill keep her. Delilah looked at him for a long moment. If the Koenigs have a ball you will convince mother to le t me go, wont you? He kissed her on the head again and stood up, yawning. Well see, Lilah. Oh please, Charles. I wont dance too much Lilah. She compressed her mouth unhappily. If she is a princess, she said thoughtfully, then would you keep her? Good God no. Imagine the ransom, he answered, giving her his best rogues grin. She laughed in delight. You are wicked, Charles! She looked thoughtful again. And if she did something terrible? Dont be silly, do you think Id keep her if I thought she might do us harm? he demanded. Im not a fool. I suppose not, Delilah said. She st ood up and hugged him as tightly as her frailness allowed. Good night, Charles. Sleep well, Lilly, he said. Delilah shut the door softly behind her and he didnt bother to lock it again. His mother would be in her room by now, worry ing herself into a swoon. He opened the
29 windows again and looked toward the stables. It occurred to him that he hadnt asked Luke to post guard over the stray. Of cour se, Luke should have thought of it on his own. He stared at the stables a moment longe r before leaving the study to check the stables before retiring. He cr ossed the lawn and entered the stables, glad to see the silhouette of a figure seated at the far end. Whos that? he called. Wills, Massa Charles. He relaxed a little. Luke put you here? he said, looking past Wills at the stable stall, top and bottom doors closed, a few boa rds wedged against the planks to ensure nothing came out. The window? Boarded it up from the outside, sir. And got that girl some clothes. Wasnt no one who would clean her up, though. The women dont like her. Charles shrugged. I dont recall my niggers being cowards. Aint been a good year, Massa. People s worried something more is coming down on them and she mighty big for a woma n. Millie dont reckon its natural. Old Mildred is more a witch than that girl in there, Im sure. Wills was quiet. Well, well see about her in the morni ng. He listened to the horses heavy breathing. Yes, well see about her in the morning. As you say, Massa.
30 Charles hesitated before continuing. Mot her thinks shes Papas. The bastard from the St. Johns woman. He felt Wills tense before white teeth flashed and a quiet laugh drifted in the half dark. That so, Massa. That so. Charles nodded. Delilah and I didnt ve nture to correct her. Not until Ive cleared up the matter with the nigger. You reckon thats the best way? Charles frowned. You dont have anything to worry about, Wills. Mother could do with a good fright. Shes been dreadful lately. My God, she s been living in the slaves quarters with that Bible of hers. Perhaps this way we can keep her in the stables and out of everyones way for a while. Wills said nothing, making Charles suddenly uncomfortable. He felt reprimanded. He turned and went back to the house. Damn them all. He was entitled to a bit of fun now and again. The following morning was the coolest in weeks. Charles awoke to air that was breathable rather than edible. He inhaled with delight and scratched his chest idly. He would have to see to the woman this morn ing. It could wait until mid-morn, though. He would take his breakfast in the study and th ink on what he needed from town. He supposed he should think on how much he had to spend first. He would take Wills. Wills kept the estates numbers like a second ski n. Charles father had raised him to it. And he would take the woman, of course. No sense in taking more trips than necessary.
31 He fully expected someone would know where she came from and reclaim her. Wills could see to the supplies and the woman while Charles visited Annabelle, one of the town prostitutes, and collected some special purchases. He got up and dressed slowly in a fresh shirt and pantshe could not stand to carry the sc ent of sex and a stale body at the same time. He splashed tepid water on his face and let the droplets dribble off his chin into the porcelain bowl on his washstand. He watched them splash into the creamy murk, flecks of black and brown detritus floating on the surface. The Negro woman did have something Span ish about her, her demeanor perhaps, but certainly not her features. Those were wide and Africa n, her jaw thrust forward, her forehead gliding back toward her cropped hair. He had seen a few pureblood Africans when he had studied at Dickinson, when he and his companions had passed by the weekly auction blocks. But this one was a ttractive in the way of Spanish women, that frankness and shameless sex. He sighed and sc rubbed his face dry with a linen towel. He was past due for a visit to Annabelle and she was such an accommodating woman for a reasonable price. Though not as creative as the doxies near Dickinson. He went out and looked down the back stai rs, the clink of pans drifting up from the kitchen. Ill have breakfast in the study! Biscuits, eggs, and coffee! He went into the study and sat down, looking over the latest figures on his accounts of credit with Harding & Sons S upply and Finchs general store. He had enough to manage the few sundries his sister and mother usually asked for from the general store, but he was well short of what he needed to buy: meal, feed, bacon, and new
32 elements for the cotton gin and sugar cane press. He had put off repl acing the pieces as long as possible, but he would need to purchase them soon, to leave enough time to hire out one of the other planters mechanics to repair the machinery well before the harvest season arrived. He tapped his lips thoughtfull y, wondering if there was a nything he could muster. Perhaps Harding would give him another adva nce against the fall yields. Luke could work the cane fields harder. The hogsh eads had been selling at a high price since shipments from the islands had been irregular what with the Negro uprisings. He had not taken an advance yet this year and Harding knew he was a man to keep his debts. At least he had received word from Finch at the store that the special present he had ordered for Delilah had come in. A two-month-belate d birthday gift. He smiled. She would be pleased nonetheless. Charles! Charles! his mother called from downstairs. He closed the ledger and left th e study, taking the back stairs. Charles! For goodness sake, Charles, Wills is waiting! Charles stopped in the kitchen and plucke d a biscuit out of the pan on the kitchen table. His eggs were still cooking and he stared at them over Tillys shoulder for a moment before he took another biscuit and head ed for the foyer, eating as he walked. His mother was fluttering back and forth in front of the open front door. He finished the first biscuit and picked up his hat off the table in the foyer. There you are! Youre not five anymore, Charles, youre two and twenty. You cant hide in your room just because you dont want to attend to something in good time.
33 Run along. And heres a list of things I need from the general store while youre there. You can speak to the Sheriff while Wills pick s up the necessities. She kissed him on the cheek, then wiped the spot with her fingers and frowned at him. You should shave every day, Charles. He shook his head and took the paper she held out, making his way out the door to Wills, who had brought a wagon up to the steps. Charles looked into the back of the wagon. The stray woman lay on the bed of the cart, hog trussed with a sturdy bale-rope, and clothed in a collection of old croker sacks sewn together. She lay on her side with her back to him, her calves and arms uncovere d, one shoulder bared to the sun. Sunlight flecked her skin with the look of dusted gold. He approached the side of the cart and leaned over to look at her skin more closely. It was a beautiful effect, even when he realized that it was the glint of sun on sand that was smeared across her shoulder and legs. Likely from getting her trussed, he realized. Still, she was built like no woman he had seen before. Though thin, her bones were invisible beneath the smoothness of her skin. He thought she must be near his age. As he let his eyes wander over her body again, he supposed she might be any age. How did one recognize such things in a woman like her, he wondered. He looked at her hair, which showed no grey. Perhaps the face. If he could look more closely at her face, or her hands. If they were as smooth and inviti ng as her shoulder he could be sure she was young. But doubtless, she carried that same freshness that all young women held, he thought; like blackberry sorbet and cream on a hot afternoon, his father used to say. He felt a flush of pleasure as he pressed agains t the side of the wagon and he pulled away
34 with the uncomfortable awareness that as he gazed at her he was dr ifting toward her over the side of the wagon. And Wills was watching him. The woman, however, remained motionle ss, eyes closed, seemingly napping. That was just like a Negro, he thought. He snorted in disgust and got into the wagon, working on his crumbled second biscuit, which he had crushed in his hand. We go, sir? Wills asked. Go on. They started out down the drive. Char les finished off his second biscuit and wiped his palms on his knees. The suns heat was already beginning to encroach on the cool morning. He waited for them to get out of sight of Riverwood be fore he took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair, leaning his forear ms on his knees. He should have thought to perfume his hair with a little eau de milles fleurs it was so slick. You think we have the monies to get the gin parts today, Wills? Yessur. Charles nodded. The wagon jostled him and he shifted on the seat and braced a foot against the footboard. He fought the ur ge to turn around and see if the stray was awake. Instead, he tried to occupy himself by id ling out at the wheel ru ts in the road. He was only partly successful, glan cing at her over his shoulder, ever asleep, at least four times on the lengthy trip. They made it to town well before noo n, for which Charles was grateful. The motions of the wagon and his attempts not to ruminate on the stray had left him discomfited. Wills let him out at the general st ore. Charles left his mothers list with the
35 clerk, then made his way up the street to the dram-shop, going up the back stairs to Annabelles. He knocked on her door and waited before she called out for him to enter. He entered her small room and found her cl ad in nothing, as he liked it, and posed in the center of the bed. He removed his boots and she moved aside for him to lie down. He made himself comfortable in the center of the bed while she slowly removed his trousers. He was pleasantly surprised by the sm ell of clean bed linens. She laid his pants across the back of her only ch air and moved back to the foot of the bed. She drew her nails up his legs, finally movi ng over him and pressing herself against him. He put his hands behind his head and smiled at her. Good and ready today, arent you, Charlie, she said. Her blond hair tickled at the side of his face and he pushed it behind her ears. He pulled her face toward him and stared at the crinkle of line s around her eyes, the whisper of creases on either side of her mouth. Her skin smelled of rose soap. How old are you, Annabelle? Her mouth parted in surprise and he kisse d her before releasin g her face so she could answer. She sat up and starte d to work his shirt up his chest. Its not the age that matters is it, Charlie, she said. He sat up so she could pull his shirt over his head. He took her hands in his and pulled them to his lips, then held them a moment longer to look at them. She tugged them free. He looked up and saw that she was feigning a pretty pout, but the tightness around her eyes gave away that he had upset her somehow.
36 Of course not, he said. But I wonde r how many years it would take a wife before she would be as skilled with her hips as you are. Its not years shed need more of, Char lie, she answered, settling herself on him and starting a confident rhythm. He grippe d her tighter and moved his hands down her sides to avoid the motions of her ribs be neath her skin, his hands seeking out the roundness of her hips. He closed his eyes a nd dug his fingers into her skin, freeing the memory of caramel skin, spattered with gold, a blackberry Cleopatra, before the thoughts washed out of his mind and he gave over to the motion of her hips. When they were done, Charles dressed slowly, in no hurry to get to his other errands. He left his payment on her dresser and hesitated, listening to the sounds of her cleaning herself at the washstand, before he decided to say anything. That soap you use Annabelle dried herself and put on the s ilk robe draped over the linen rack. Whats that? That soap you use, does it come in other scents? She approached him and rested her chin on his shoulder, wrapping her hands around his arm. Her eyes flitted to the m oney on the stand and then back to him. Could you order something else? he went on. Perhaps something more to my tastes, blackberry perhaps? She cocked an eyebrow and nodded. Its your money, darlin. He moved away from her and left her a nother few dollars. See to it then.
37 Charles made his way downstairs and le ft through the back of the dram-shop, walking a short ways down the back path, we ll-trod, before he headed back toward the main road, slipping back into town between the hotel and the apothecary. He made his way down the road, careful to stay out of th e way of the wagons that were crowding the road and the niggers that were bustling along its edges, headed towards Harding & Sons. Only a few other planters passed him on foot; mostly they rode in wagons or coaches. A few of the lesser planters, farmers really, shook his hand as he passed, and a few even offered condolences on the loss of his brother. They had not been to town in some months they said, because the roads to the nor th had fallen into disrepair and were being reclaimed by the wilderness, barely passabl e. It was a hard season coming, they predicted. Charles finally arrived at Hardings a nd saw that Riverwoods wagon sat outside in a line of five. He made his way inside returning greetings as he worked his way toward the back of the large wood-frame ware house, filled with the scrape of bales and hogsheads, the rain-like sound of bushels of rice being moved and loaded. Wills was talking with one of the warehouse foremen, head down, looking defeated. Charles joined the pair, but before he could speak Otto Koenig slapped him on the back. Charles smiled at the older man, some twenty years his seni or, his hair still a vibrant sandy blond, though a small ring around his pate. His frame was talle r than Charles and thin with the energy that Koenig was known for.
38 Charles, he boomed, shaking his hand warmly, glad you came when you did. I told your boy, Wills, I wanted a word with you. Come along. Ive a cigar Ive been keeping for you. Koenig pulled Charles up the stairs that le d to the small loft offices. He picked one and ushered Charles in, closing the door behind them. He pulled a cigar from his pocket and handed it to Charles, lighting a matc h from the desk and helping Charles to it. Charles took a deep breath and exha led appreciatively as the woody sweetness filled the tiny room. Yours? he asked. Koenigs best, straight from the estate in the Indies. Damn good choice to let my daughter Kates beau run it, he said, smili ng broadly. Charles nodded and returned the smile. Koenig seated himself on the edge of the small writing table. I know you wont like it, Charles, but I ll come straight to it. Seems your boy tried to collect some parts and other things, but Harding says your account is past credit. Charles breathed out another stream of sm oke and looked at his cigar, rolling it between his fingers. Im sure it wa s a misunderstanding, he said, looking up. Its nothing to be ashamed of, my bo y. God knows your father was a reasonable man and a hell of a sailor, but as good at running a plantation as a pony pulling a plow. Charles stiffened. You know Ive nothing but respect for you, boy. Koenig stared at his hands for a moment before continuing. Seems Riverw oods been straining its accounts more since Henry died. Its not
39 Koenig held up a hand to stop him. There isnt much in Conrad that doesnt get to old Otto. I make it my business when it doesnt. And I know youve been doing your best. Still, the seasons havent been kind to most of us. I can understand your situation completely and I want to make you an offer. I know youre not keen on the business, but cattle are doing well in Middle Florida. Good land up there and plenty of quality stock left over from the Spanish days. Only useful thing they did in th e territory. Koenig cleared his throat. Ive a mind to try my hand at it, but I dont want to spare many hands from New India. New India was the Florida estate that was the heart of Otto Koenigs vast holdings, named as a tribute to his years as capta in of a Dutch trader. Charles father had served as Koenigs first mate and, later, th ey had become privateers in the Gulf trade together. Charles stared expectantly at Koen ig, but the older man let the silence extend. Charles frowned, trying to guess at Koenigs di rection. Otto had alwa ys been close with his father. Charles could not remember wh ether Henry had ever dealt with the elder Koenig and he had never asked or cared. Fo r his part, Charles had seen little of Otto Koenig since his brother had died, which was not surprising. Charle s brother had died only a year before and Charles had still been at Dickinson. He ha d only been back to Riverwood for some six months now. However, the Koenigs had attended his brothers funeral, a sign of respect, albe it expected. He took a deep inha le on the cigar. But he had always been inclined to like Koenigs manner. An able man, he felt. Id like to hire out your men, Charles, Koenig finally said. And your overseer Luke and that driver boy of yours, Wills. Id pay you steady wages. No percentage of
40 the profits you understand. A man can only do so much in an arrangement like this. Your boys would help build the fences and driv e the cattle down, oversee getting the herd settled . and Id pay you fair wages for their labor. Charles stared at him for moment, unsu re he had heard correctly. How many men? I think you have ten or so full hands and a few younger boys that might be able to do the work. All my men? You want to hire out all of my Negroes? Charles shook his head slowly. Id be a fool to agree to that. Koenig stood up and walked over to Char les, laying a hand on his shoulder. My boy, Riverwood has a year, maybe two, left in her before the creditors who sold your father the land would do better to sue you for its title and se ll it at a government auction than wait for you to pay the back interest and loans owed on the property. How long do you think the creditors will be patient with you? Many of th em grew up with your father, God rest his soul, but now that Riverwood s in his sons hands, shes a matter of business. Charles turned away to give himself a mo ment to think. All this over a few sacks of meal that he could not afford. It was ridiculous for Koenig to imply that Riverwood was so far in debt that she was on the bri nk of being reclaimed by loan creditors, and insulting for him to insinuate that he was RiverwoodsCharleslast ally against those creditors. No, Otto Koenigs offer was not charity, Charles thought. Otto Koenig saw an
41 opportunity and he meant to take it. Charles brooded over his cigar, at last making up his mind. Thank you for the cigar, Mr. Koenig, but I dont need any more gifts at the moment. Charles opened the door and walked onto the landing. Dont let your pride get in the way, Ch arles, Koenig said, stopping him with a hand on his arm. I was young once and struggle d with my own estates. I respected your father and your brother before you, and youve got the same grit in you that they had. I think of you like one of my own. Im not tr ying to patronize you. Im offering you and Riverwood a temporary solution. You need never see the wages. I can have them made out directly to your creditors. It will help fortify their confidence in you. The confidence that I have in you, Charles. Charles shrugged off Ottos hand. Perhaps I relish the thou ght of losing the estate. No one relishes the prospect of losi ng their home. Koenig patted him on the back. Take your time with it, Charles. I wouldnt need your boys for a few months and you would have them back on Saturdays and S undays to see to whatever the women cant keep up before the harvest season begins. Between men, Charles, we both know the expense of slaves is in keep ing them, like any other stock. I would house and feed them during the work days. Its too far to mana ge coffles or gangs anyhow. You get the full wages; the rest of the expense would be mine. He stared at Charles for a minute before adding, Like any hired-out Negroes.
42 Charles took a deep breath a nd put the cigar in his mouth. It would be as if he had hired his estate out to Otto Koenig. Riverwood would be a farm, not a plantation. He exhaled and ran his teeth acr oss the tip of his tongue. As I say, the offer is an open one, Char les. But you must manage Riverwood as you see fit. Meantimes, Sabbath dinner is al ways open to you and your mother and sister. We were sorry to miss them at the service on Sunday, Otto said cheerily, slapping Charles on the back and leaving. Charles watched him cross the warehouse floor and have a few words with a foreman and Wills. Men began to carry bags of meal out to the cart. Wills took a few bundles of sack cloth and followed them. Wills should have told him they didnt have enough money on the account to collect what they needed at the warehouse, Charles thought. Now he was bound to Koenig for a ki ndness that he didnt want to have to repay. Wills lied, he thought, just to embarrass me because hes not happy about that Negro woman. Or worse, hed kept the numbers wrong, just like any common slave. But Wills had been raised better than that. Charles waited until they had loaded the cart fully before leaving the loft to join Wills outside. The wagon bed was stacked to a man high with sacks of meal, minerals for the fields, new spades and parts, leather, and the rest of the items. Wills wiped his forehead. Charles moved to stand upwind of him. I thought an eighteen-hundred-dollar ni gger like you could at least keep the figures in your head, he said testily. Why else did Daddy bother with all them lessons?
43 Wills rested an arm on the edge of the cart, breathing deeply, his shirt stained at the chest, waist, and arms. Yessur. But a po nigger like me dont know nothing much bout what Riverwood land costs. All I know is what my peoples need and what the horses and the oxes need and what all the plowing and seeding a nd repairing costs. Charles sighed. Lets go see about the woman. Wills nodded and got in the cart. They made their way to the jail on the other end of town, advantageously situated next to the dram-shop, at the edge of town. Wills stayed in the wagon while Charles went inside He entered the jail and pulled out his handkerchief, dabbing at the sweat under his nose, but he held the kerchief in place as the odor of the place accosted his nose. Sorry about that there smell, Mr. DeCo eur, the Sheriff bellowed. Had me a bunch of soakers in town last night and had to keep em overnight. Charles watched the Sheriff t eeter at the edge of a crude pine and deerskin chair, his cotton overcoat liberally ripped and his unde rshirt and pants stai ned, his face flushed. Charles had no doubt that the Sheriff alone was enough to produce the odor of honeyed rot that permeated the building. The Sheri ff stood up quickly, overturning his chair, and swept a glass and bottle off the pine table that served as his desk, secreting them away beneath the desk. The Sheriff facilely rust led papers scattered on the desks surface, before walking around the desk. Charles put away his handkerchief, careful to breath through his mouth as much as possible. Anything as of yet? Charles inquired.
44 The Sheriff stopped next to Charles, too cl ose for Charles sensibilities, and shook his head. Charles looked around the jail house for the first time. Beyond the gallery that held the Sheriffs desk was a doorway that led to the cells. Charles took advantage of the chance to escape the stench of the man by movi ng into the back of the jail. He looked around, giving his eyes a moment to adjust to the dim brown interior. There were four cells. He could see a few men, poor white farmers no doubt, lying in various poses of sleep in one cell, the door open, bottles scattered at its entran ce. The Sheriffs soakers, he imagined. Two other cells were empty and also stood open, but the fourth had its door closed. He moved toward this one and saw his Negro stray near the back of the cell. Her bale-rope had been exchanged for iron shackle s that bound her wrists to her feet. The Sheriff came up behind Charles and edged him aside, opening th e cell door with a set of keys and dragging his stench with him. Charles moved into the cell and the Sheriff followed. They stopped in front of the woman who was seated with her back against the corner of the cell, her mouth open, likely breathing through her mouth as well, Charles thought. Her knees were arranged to the side of her hips in an almost prim fashion. She stared up at the Sheriff then Charles, before returning her gaze to he r fingers, picking at something beneath the nails. I aint found nothing yet, Mr. Charles, the Sheriff said. I asked around and dont nobody heard tell of any Indian raids on maroon camps or coffle breaks. He shrugged. I reckon I can let you have her, long as you give me leeway to ask round some more. If I aint hear d anything by the end of a week or two, shes as good as yours.
45 Charles nodded. Thatll do. He waited for the Sheriff to free her and release her into his hands, but instead the noxi ous man put his hands in his pockets. Dont get many that look like her. I r eckon if she belongs to someone theyd have an easy time of gettin her back. Yes, well, youll keep me informed, Char les answered. He swatted away a fly that landed on his cheek and took a step toward the cell door. Still, the Sheriff did not move. If you ever have a mind to sell her I dont reckon many round here would have her. Got a look about her. I have waiting engagements, Charles said. The Sheriff nodded and yanked the woman to her feet by the slim bar that connected her wrist cuffs. Dont damage her, Charles said quickly. Shes been as safe in my hands as if she were my own, Mr. DeCoeur. The Sheriff led her out of the cell, followed by Charles. They did not stop until they stood outside the jail. Wills got down out of the wagon and nodded at the Sherriff and mumbled a greeting. Charles motioned for Wills to take charge of the woman, but the Sheriff ignored them both, retaining his hold on the Negros bonds. A passing wagon threw up a spew of dust that forced them all to cough to clear out their lungs.
46 Cussedest, goddamn country, the Sheriff spat. The Sher iff stared at the negro womans face, while she blinked away the dust from her eyes, her hands still chained and the bar still in the Sheriffs hands. Charles itched to grab the keys out of the Sheriffs hand and see to the woman himself. No tongue. Fancy a thing like that, e h, Mr. DeCoeur? He didnt wait for Charles answer. No, I reckon if I seen her face on a runawa y advert Id know it anywhere, and you cant get past her height neith er. He looked over at Charles. If you ever have a mind to sell her at auction you just bring her to me first. Ive a mind shed be worth the price, he said, sp itting on the ground again. Hell, she big enough to put my deputies to shame. What you want me to do with her, Massa? Wills asked from behind the Sheriff. We aint got room on the cart. Charles adjusted his hat ag ainst the heat and got up on the wagon seat. He slid across to the far side. Put her up in the middle, he answered, patting the seat beside him. The Sheriff grunted and at last freed the woman from her manacles, disappearing back into the jail without so much as a good day to Charles. Wills got the woman on the front seat and seated himself in the middle. Wills snapped the reins and the horses started out of town at a walk. When they were some ways out of sight of town, with not a wagon or rider in sight, Charles leaned forward to look past Wills at the stray. She pulled vigorously at her nose, before she blew her nose over the side of the cart.
47 My lady has standards, Charles said to Wills, who kept his eyes on the road. Charles leaned back and drew his handkerc hief out. Wills urged the horses into a trot. Charles wiped his face down again before blowing his own nose. He took in a deep breath of Florida air. We keepin her then? Wills asked. Might be needing extr a hands, Charles said. He thought back to Koenigs offer. He had been too quick to refuse, he thought. Surely he could manage a few women and pick aninnies alone and he would have the men back on weekends. Koenig might let him keep a driver and he could keep the new boy his foreman, Luke, had hired on. Luke had acquired young Jed at the New Years auction in town, paying the boys bail, a fair price for the seven years of indentured servitude Jed had earned as penalty from the courts as a stowaway from Ireland. Charles thoughts wandered back to his overextended credit. If he lost Riverwood in a year . He shook his head to himself. He couldnt imag ine what he would do with Delilah. Or his mother. He could not take them to his father s country, over in Louisiana. Surely a man would lose his credit twice as fa st in Creole country as he wo uld in Florida. And it would be no healthier for Delilah. He might consid er New York, his mothe rs place. But New York was a name, not a real place that came into his mind like Riverwood. He would need to find suitable employ. And he would have to eat at a table that hadnt been in his family for generations. And there would be that infernal snow. He shook his head ruefully, knowing that was exactly what he wanted.
48 I dont reckon shes field broke yet, Char les, sir, Wills said, interrupting his reverie. You and Luke can see to it. He hear d Wills sigh. Charles slapped him on the back. DeCoeur blood in you, boy. You can ha ndle one little woman. He grinned at Wills, who cut his eyes at him, making him laugh. Shes only a mite bigger than you, boy. It aint her Is worried a bout. Its your Mama. Charles grunted. Perhaps he could hire himself out to New India.
49 Chapter Two: A Dubious Asset Though glad for the dull ache that made th e night before seem distant, Charles dressed slowly to avoid letting his head th rob any further. He wiped his face with a wetted cloth, pressing it into hi s eyes to end the sensation that they were bulging from their sockets with each thrum of his temples. He took a deep breath and opened his door slowly, careful not to make a sound. He liste ned at the opening for a minute, and hearing nothing, shut the door behind him and went down to the kitchen. Tilly was seated at the large pine kitchen table, squeezing orange ju ice. She stood as he came in and curtsied half-heartedly. Charles waved a dismissive hand and sat down at the table, putting his head in his hands. Tilly started a kettle for coffee and put together a plate of cold salted pork, biscuits, and a pile of tomato slices generously pepperedthe latter his fathers favored means to recover after such a night. He tried the pork, but the movement of his jaw was too much and he had to abandon it. He ate the tomatoes in silence, the only noise the gush of the orange flesh as Tilly filled a pitcher for the afternoon. He finished his biscuits and pushed the plat e away, cradling his forehead in his palms again. A gentle thump told him Tilly had put coffee before him. How did you manage the tomatoes? he asked, careful to keep his voice low. Tom went out for em over at the Briar.
50 A thrill of pain racked his head and he exhaled loudly to dispel it. Briar? he finally asked. You mean Abe and Vivs farm. Yessur. Charles scraped his tongue with his teeth to clear th e peppery warmth. He stood up slowly. Send Tom to me. He gri pped the table until more paroxysms passed. Where is Luke? North fields, Massa. Send Tom up that way then. He headed out to the back porch, but stopped in the doorway. And Mama? he asked. Tilly kept her back to him. Shes taking somethin in her room, Massa. Charles relaxed. Fine, Tilly. Just fine. He went out onto the back veranda and st opped, shielding his eyes from the sun. He cursed his luck for not thinking to bring hi s hat with him. He could return upstairs, but his mother might hear him. He deci ded not to risk another meeting. Let her complain to Lilah for a few days about his keeping the Negro. He had more important things to tend to, he told hi mself, knowing the simple truth was that he had no desire to listen to his mothers arguments or ravings. His father used to lock himself in his study on such occasions. It was a nice day, howeverthe sun clear, the air crisp, the cottontails roaming the fieldsand Charles, too, felt like roaming, even in his current state. He made his way to the stable, where the boys bade him good morning and saddled a mare for him. He mounted her gingerly and started out fo r the north fields, stroking her mane and
51 careful not to tighten his knees against the pa in, willing her to walk leisurely to keep her from jarring him. He took the west path, past the front of the house, through the forest, and across the fallow fields that would be pr epared for seeding in the coming weeks, but for now were dusty tracts flecked with pieces of shell and studded with weeds. He rode out to the northeast plot, but it was empty. He stopped to sh ut his eyes against a mild nausea and listened. He coul d hear shouts from the west. They must be in the cane fields, he realized. He cut across and f ound Luke, Jed, and the two drivers overseeing a gang of field slaves. He stoppe d at the outside edge of the field, waving at Luke to catch his eye, and holding up his reins. Luke sent one of the younger hands over to take Charles horse. The boy led her to a copse of pine and brush and tied her up before returning to his row. Charles strolled at the edge of the field, car eful to stay back so that Luke knew he meant no interruption. Luke and Tiny were working the south half, their slaves digging up the remnant stumps of cane stalks from the previous season, readying the field for planting. Tiny was showing the stray woman ho w to wield a small pick in swift clean strokes, dredging up the soil around the stumps a nd then pulling them free from the earth. Piles of stalks lay at intervals across the field. Each time the stray tried, Tiny shook his head and showed her again, pointing at th e soil and digging out roots she had missed, showing her again how cleanly he pulled th e stalks free, removing the whole of the complex beneath the soil. The roots of an old season left in th e soil could choke new growth before the planted Otaheite cane cut tings had a chance to thrive in the soil.
52 Luke shouted encouragements to the other slaves, careful to move back and forth between the old hands who would not slow until the noon meal was called, the younger boys and girls who frequently nicked them selves, and Tiny and the stray. The stray woman was clothed, Charles noted, in a faded cal ico dress that barely reached her knees. He would have to see about having a dress ma de especially for her, he thought. She continued to take comfortable strokes, but much too near the surface, missing the insidious roots that lay deep. Luke finally cussed her to high heaven and interceded. Charles watched as Luke yanked the pick fr om her hand and shoved Tiny aside before kneeling on the womans back, pushing so that her face was nearly touching the ground. Dig, Luke commanded. She worked at th e soil around the stump with her hands, her long fingers clawing in at the soil and tossing it aside in handfu ls. At last she pulled the stalk free, more slowly this time, and droppe d it on the ground besi de the hole. Luke took his knee off her back and squatted to examine the hole. Finally he nodded, retrieving her pick and shoving it back into her hand, before moving away, shouting at two other young girls, not yet with hips, who had stopped to watch them. Tiny just stood by the woman for a moment while she straighten ed herself and rolled her shoulders once. Then they moved to the next stump together but Tiny only watched this time and said nothing. Charles looked northward, where Wills a nd Jed were working their hands, and headed for the far quadrant. Wills, he called. Massa? Wills said, meeting him.
53 Why isnt anyone carting the stumps aw ay? he asked, pointing at the piles. Mr. Luke got them working in th e gin house and putting away the supplies mostly, Massa. These here, Wills said, pointing at the hands, gonna take it up, soon as we get it cleared. Charles nodded. Whos minding the gin house then? Mr. Luke hired out Mr. Hardings Negro, Tate, who overseeing the repairs hisself. Best mechanic east of the Suwannee. Has Luke got someone for the cane press repairs? No, Massa. Nearest boy been hired out to one of them factories over in Tampa and wont be back this a way til summer. Charles sighed and motioned Wills back to work. He watched the foremans indentured apprentice, Jed, walk the rows. The boy was barely growing his chin hairs, but already he held his shoulders proud and hi s voice had dropped to a pleasant baritone since he had arrived. Luke has a good eye for help, Charles thought, and it was nice to have another white face in the fields. Jed s eemed to sense Charles thoughts because he turned to smile in his direction, waving his wh ip in the air like a cattleman. Charles gave him a short wave in return. The boys pale, freckled face was the color of young strawberries. No doubt he would be retching ou t his guts from the heat by late afternoon, which reminded Charles that he himself was without a hat. The hot air and sweat itched between hi s shoulder blades and he knew it did not help that he had not change d his clothes from the day before. An unpleasant smell tickled his nose, and he recognized it as the st ench of the pond off to the southwest, in a
54 clearing just behind the natura l fence of palmetto, vines, and brush that encircled Riverwoods lands. Charles wandered down toward Lukes end again. The stray continued to work her own row. The other slaves continued to work, two to a row, ignoring Luke, but sneaking glance s at the stray, he noticed. Luke! he called. The foreman made his way over to him, sniffing at the sweat on his face. Hows she coming? Charles asked, poi nting at the stray Negro woman. Tiny was trailing her at a distance now, let ting her work almost wholly alone. Cant make her out one way or tother. Got a steady hand with the pick. Id say shes done some kind of field work before but she dont seem to know about taking orders. How do you mean? I dont think she was any kind of slave. She bout acts like were trying to help her with something. I cant say what I mean exactly, but I seen a lo t of slaves and this one aint got no fear in her, and no ornery. So you dont think shes dangerous. No, no, Luke said, shaking his head. I imagine somebody got heavy-handed with her. She might be pureblood African wa shed up from one of the slavers heading for the islands, if you asking my opinion. There s the port over on the Manatee. Maybe thats how come she got here naked. They dont worry about covering em up until they get them to auction. She might a washed in further south when her slaver ran afoul, though she aint got a scratch on her, which I dont see how thats liable. Luke
55 scratched his neck. My brother signed onto a slaver a few times before he settled down to plantation work up in Georgia. Accordin to him, the savages are harder on their own than what we think of to keep em in line. So you think shes from the Slave Coast? Charles asked. They cut out her tongue? Luke shrugged. They take fingers and pierce lips and put cuts in the skin when one of em does something the rest of the e m dont approve of. He shrugged again. Theys savages. But you dont think shes escaped from a jail, or a runaway, or from a maroon camp down south? The sun was high now and the soil was star ting to heat. A number of the slaves had begun to interrupt their work at intervals to wipe the sweat out of their eyes. Charles watched as the stray Negro woman stood up ag ain and arched her back before walking over to the boy who was the gangs water-be arer. The boy set the bucket down on the ground and backed away from it as she approa ched. The woman stared at him before bending down to take some water in the cup of her palm, which she wiped down her face. She pointed at the boys hand. The boy tossed the tin cup he held at her feet. Another male slave approached the pair, while the stray woman scooped a cup of water from the bucket and drank. She looked at the man over her shoulder before holding the cup out to him. He took the cup out of her hand and stood back. Get along there, you lazy niggers! Luke s houted. It taint hardly hellish yet!
56 The stray went back to her row. The man rinsed the cup out and gave it back to the boy, who dumped out the bucket of water and walked away toward the pond, likely to collect more. Charles started to ask about it, but Luke at last answered his earlier question. I dont rightly know, sir, if shes a runa way or a fugitive, Luke said. Wills werent too keen on putting her to work with the cane, but shed have done something with that there pick by now if she was going to. She dont look like shes too keen to get somewhere else. Charles sighed heavily. Is it worth the risk? Built like a ox and didnt cost no money. Charles nodded. And hows Jed? Good boy, steady hand and a head for ove rseeing. He may be young, but hes got steel in them shoulders. Charles nodded and slapped Luke on the bac k. Ill leave them to you then. You let me know if you have any trouble. He headed for his horse. Mr. Charles? Luke called after him. Charles stopped and turned around. I gotta give that nigger a name. You want anything in particular? Charles frowned. A wavering memory of hi s mothers pale face, the edge of the Bible weighing on the toe of his right boot, rose in his mind. Demon, succubus, hellcat she had called her. Charles shook his head. Florida was taxing to his mothers nerves. Hellcat, he finally called back.
57 Sir? Hell-cat. Shes a mighty big stray, he sa id, turning back toward his horse. As he skirted the edge of the field, the woman looked toward him. She wiped a hand down her face in that way the blacks did, sweeping the sweat away toward the ground. She would make quite the pet. For the man brave enough, he thought. Luke was more than up to the job, remi nding Charles that he was worth every penny of his two-hundred dollar yearly wages. Charles was so pleased that he was considering giving him a bonus for his e fficient managementperhaps one of the pickaninnies as his own boy or to hire out. But as Charles mulled it over, it came to him that Luke would be more satisfied with the gift of Jeds indenture papers. Over the weeks, the boy became Lukes shadow, and Luke began to smile more with the young man present to hang on his every instruction and wisdom. Charles remembered when he had followed Wills, five years his senior, in just the same way when they were boys. He had trailed him into the woods where the slave children built little camps from sticks a nd vines, fronds for the roofs, and made-up folktales about the wild hogs and cottontails that roamed the woods. Wills would usher Charles into the makeshift lair in front of him. Is watching Young Massa today he would announce. Those were the days that Charles father was home and his older siblings grew irritable and re stless under his fathers sight, the days his mother was prone to fits at the slightest incident, and little Ch arles, but seven, was left to brood on his own.
58 Wills would find him on those days and Old Mildred, who was young enough then to be cook before her daughter Tilly ha d taken over the duties, would call Charles in for afternoon juice and cool cream and sweet biscuits, sometimes with molasses. He would sit on the back steps to the veranda and Wills would hover nearby until Charles felt the older boy had been patient long enough. I reckon youve been a good boy, Wills he would say. I treat my people well Charles would go on. Come get a piece of this here biscuit he would say, handing Wills the bottom half that had the crusty edges he disliked. This is the best biscuit Millie-girls ever made Charles would say each time. Wills would nod slowly, like he was thinking, We knows quality he would say. And this heres quality Charles would finish. Over the next week, while Luke was molding the new additions to the estate, Charles continued to avoid his mother. Tilly had learned to keep breakfast in the kitchen for him, though once his mother had sought hi m out there too and he had made a hasty retreat to the cane presses, which lay quiet, wa ving his hat as he stumbled off the veranda stairs, lying that he had to see how Jed a nd Hellcat were coming along. At lunch time he ate by the cotton gin, staring at the silent machinery, preferring the feelings of loneliness that sought him out at these times to the disappr oving sulk or shrill blather of his mother. At dinner he took his meal in the study, tel ling his mother he was reviewing the accounts. The fourth night of their silent cat and mouse game, his mother knocked at the study door. He sat quietly in hopes she woul d think him gone, but she tested the door.
59 You must be in there, Charles. You never lock the door when you are not in there. Open the door, Charles. I will have a word with you. If only it would be a word and not a lectur e, he wished. He heaved himself out of his chair and opened the door. His mother ha d a furious frown on her face, but she did not enter the study. She rearranged her clasped hands to her hips. He fought the urge to stare at the floor and bury his hands in his pockets like a child. Instead, he settled for leaning against the frame of the door with his arms crossed, though he still avoided her eyes. What on earth have you suddenly taken an interest in, Charles? she asked, peering around him. Im reviewing the ledgers, he lied. I thought it was tim e. Its been nearly six months since anyone kept the accounts at Riverwood. She arched an eyebrow at him. Nonsense. I think you are hiding away in there to read your silly books and pretend you are in knee-pants again, instead of a man of twoand-twenty with a six-h undred-acre estate and forty-odd Negroes to manage. He shrugged. Believe what you will. She shifted her hands back to the front of her dress to fuss at the small band of ruffles that circled her waist. I dont know what to do with you, Charles. She bit her lower lip. Ive even thought to talk to Otto about it. Perhaps you would be more comfortable with himat least you might be more amenable to talking with a man. Surely you never listen to me. Koenig and I have already spoken.
60 Her eyes went wide and she clasped his crossed arms in her hands. A slow smile bloomed across her lips. Spoke? You spoke with Otto? About what, my darling? Business matters, Mother. Nothing that concerns you, as yet. Koenig has a new business in mind and he proposed that I might take an interest in the new venture. His mother squeezed his arms affectionately and gave them a light pat. That is why you have been locked away then and ta ken those rides around the estate? Does it have something to do with Riverwood? In a manner. It must be quite an offer then, she said, dropping her voice to a ridiculously conspiratorial whisper, if you need to take so much time to consider it. You are reviewing the affairs of Riverwood then? Do you find Ottos offer a good one? Mother, he said, standing up straight. She shook her head and patted his arms agai n before letting them go. Ill keep out of it then. She started to walk away, but stopped and turned back to him just as he put his hand on the door to close it. Will you give me a hint, Charles? Is it a grand plan? Otto has always been ve ry astute in these matters. I shouldnt like to tempt fa te, Mother, by discussing it. Oh, she said, clasping her hands together over her chest in a delighted manner. He watched her nod as if all were right with the world. He could hardly believe his luck that su ch a small lie had put him back in her good graces. Dont mention this to anyone, Mother, he warned. Not anyone. I
61 should hate to break Koenigs confidence while we are, he struggled to find a word to solidify the lie, negotiating the matter. Ill leave you to it then. I shant say a word more, she replied and left. For a week more he kept up his preten se of industriousness, unable to quite believe he and his mothers war of wills had come to an end, until at last Lilah told him his mother had signified a truce by sitting a w hole day without so much as a word or a sigh about Charles behavior. That same evening Charles decided to brave the dinner table. In the midst of their first c ourse, they received an unexpected caller. One of the Sheriffs patrollers is here, Massa, Tilly announced. Charles set his napkin on the table and got up, going out to the main foyer. The front door stood open and a young man, by the name of Higgs, stood in the doorway. Higgs held out a piece of paper. Charle s looked the young man over; he was not even Charles age, nineteen perhaps, and painfully thin. He was the son of one of the nearby farmer families, Charles knew. Charles rarely saw him except when he went in and out of the dram-shop for his visits to Annabelle. Higgs was already a hearty drinker. He seemed sober enough now. Charles took the paper from the boy and read it over. It was a bill of ownership for the stray negro woman, Hellcat, made out to Charles. When he had finished reading it, he smiled and held out his hand to Higgs who stared at his hand be fore finally realizing he was meant to shake it.
62 Thank you, Higgs. You can tell the Sheriff Im grateful for his prompt attention to the matter. He released the boys hand. Sure nough, sir, Ill tell him. Sheriff says we got room at the whoopin post, ifn you need some help keepin her in line. Well tell the Sheriff I appreciate the o ffer, but I think my man Luke has plenty of experience in managing Negroes. Higgs nodded. Didnt mean no offense, sir. No offense tall. Sheriff said I should say. Youre taking quite a bit of time, Charles, his mother called from behind him. Who is at the door? Weve plenty for another Charles turned aside to look at his moth er, who stopped her speech as her eyes fell on Higgs. Higgs smiled ruefully and took off his hat, giving an awkward bow. Maam, he said. Didnt mean to disturb your dinner. I just had to drop of th at niggers bill for Mr. DeCoeur here. I wont be taking none of your time now. Higgs sl ipped his hat back on and turned away toward his horse. Higgs, Charles called. Mrs. DeCoeur is right. We have enough for one more. Join us for dinner. Higgs halted on the last step and stared at Charles as if he had not heard right. Well, dont be rude, Higgs, Charles said. The ladies are waiting. Higgs slowly climbed the steps again and entered the house, taking off his hat. Charles took his hat and set it on the table in the foyer. He steered the boy into the dining
63 room by the shoulder. Tilly was already la ying out a place at th e table, across from Delilah. Charles sat back down at the head of the table, his mother already back in her seat at the far end. She stared stiffly into her soup and took small sips. Delilah smiled shyly at Higgs, who avoided looking at her and stared uncomfortab ly at the array of silverware on either side of his soup bowl. The less dinnerware you use, th e easier it is, Charles said. Higgs nodded, picking up a tea spoon and delving into his bowl of soup. Delilah giggled. Delilah, Charles mother said shar ply. She put down her own spoon and waved at Tilly to take the bowl away. Charless watched his mother dab imperiously at the corners of her mouth with her napkin. It has been some time since we had company at our table, she said. Higgs, unaware it was his turn to respond, continued to ravage his soup with the teaspoon. Charles waved away his own soup, leaning b ack in his seat while they waited for Higgs to finish so that Tilly could bring the next course. How do you find the patrol, Higgs? he asked. Higgs stopped with his spoon halfway to his mouth, then set it back down reluctantly. Tilly tried to take the bowl, but Higgs stopped her with one hand to take back his spoon. Tilly gave him a disgusted look before retreating to the kitchen with the empty dishware.
64 I reckon its honest work, Higgs said. Were lucky here. Conrad hasnt seen much nigger action like they have up North. I heard tell they had niggers as figure themselves for generals and all up in Louisi ana. Led a uprising a nd tried to slaughter them poor people in their beds. Charles cleared his throat. I believe th at was some time ago and in Virginia, Higgs. Reckon so, Higgs said amiably. Charles caught this mothers eye. Her face had paled a shade or two. But I hear they called in quite a militia and took care of the matter very efficiently, Charles added. Just so, sir. Very efficiently. I reckon we d be just as efficient. We got some good men. Just as good as any up in Virginny. Im sure we do, Higgs. Tilly returned and set out the dinner plat es. She moved around the table serving them breaded chicken and sweet honeyed ya ms. Higgs sat with his spoon in hand, his eyes riveted to Tilly as he waited for her to finish her slow prog ression around the table and signal the all-clear to eat. If we have been so fortunate, what exact ly is it that you do, Mr. Higgs? Charles mother asked. We ride round at night and make sure they aint getting up to nothin. Most trouble we have is some of the boys sneaking off to see their women. And the widows ask us to help out with their niggers sometim es. Aint proper for a lady to have to whoop one of em, is it, Maam?
65 Charles mother nodded. I should say not. You must be very brave, Delilah said. Nothin on it, Miss. Its honest work and it needs doing. But at night and alone and there are the bobcats and the gators out th ere, Delilah said, staring at him. Higgs looked up and Charles could tell he was trying not to laugh. Im afraid Delilah is quite taken with adventure stories, Mr. Higgs, Charles mother said. She quite believes theres something lurking at every corner. Some of the old nigger wo menll get your hackles up at night with all their witchin, Higgs offered. Perhaps we should discuss more suitabl e subjects, Charle s mother replied. Tell us, Higgs, Charles prodded, w hat do you do about a witching woman? Do? Higgs asked. I dont reckon much needs doing. Theys harmless. Just scares theyselves and the other niggers. Aint no real harm in all of it. I dont think many would agree with you, Charles mother countered. I dont reckon theres any harm in it, Hi ggs repeated. And ifn they get too riled up, they owners usually just give em a good whoopin so the others see they aint no harm to anyone but theyselves. Sheriffs done it a number of times for Widow Taylor. She got that one Higgs caught himself this time. I reckon I said enough, he looked at Delilah, in present company. I dont feel my confidence in the patrol much raised, Charles mother said. Oh no, Maam, I reckon you aint got not hing to worry about. Riverwood aint never had no trouble with its niggers. Nothing unusual-like.
66 Charles mother pursed her lips. Mrs. DeCoeur has some concerns about the new slave whose bill you brought, Charles said. I aint seen her for myself, but I heard so me, Higgs said. He finished the last bite of his meal and set down his spoon, leani ng back in his chair. You got Old Mildred. Shell let you know if you got anything to wo rry about. She knows ev erything there is to know about the niggers in Conrad. And she s level-headed. Cant do much better. Seems you know my Negroes bette r than I do, Charles said. Well, we pay most of em a visit at l east once a month. Just sos they dont forget we got our eye on em. Higgs sat up suddenly. I reckon if youre worried, we could come round your place a mite more often. He looked at Charles mother. Ifn it would help the ladies. Charles looked at his moth er, who frowned at Higgs. It might do a bit of good, she finally said. Its settled then, Charles answered. He looked over Higgs empty plate and cleared his throat, standing up. We ve kept you long enough, he said. Higgs stood up quickly and gave a halfbow at both women over his plate. Charles motioned him out into the foyer. Higgs reclaimed his hat and started out the door. What will it cost for your extra services? Charles asked from the doorway. Higgs turned around and shook his head.
67 Reckon its settled, he said, patting hi s stomach, so long as you dont mind ifn its just me as comes by on them extra visits? Charles nodded. That will suit our needs. Much obliged, Higgs said, holdi ng out his own hand this time. Charles took it and they shook hands again before Higgs went down the stairs and out to the pickaninny, who had waited with Higgs horse. Charles watched Higgs leave before clos ing the front door. He turned around and saw his mother standing at the foot of the stairs. Delilah came out of the dining room and quickly slipped between them a nd disappeared into the parlor. You have wholly made up your mind to keep her then? his mother asked. I would be a fool not to, Mother. Free property does not fall into a mans hands every day. He had an idea of a sudden. A nd if Koenig and I come to an agreement, Riverwood will need as many hands as she can muster. His mother stared at him and finally n odded. You have made arrangements for the patrollers to keep extra watch on Riverwood? Yes. It will suffice for now. Until that nigger shows her true nature and you have no choice but to get rid of her. He shrugged. And I will have no more scruffy boys at my table, Charles. Higgs looked quite underfed.
68 We are not a charity house, Charles. I wont have it. Next time you can see that they get something from the kitchen if you wish. Charles nodded. Quite appalling, using a teaspoon for an en tire meal, she said, turning away and mounting the stairs. Thereafter, Charles breathed a mental sigh at having had his way in the affair of Hellcat. As for his mother, their occasiona l conversations revolved comfortably around the prospect of a business alliance between th e two families. It became the sole subject of his mothers inquiry and he was careful to guard his responses, which only excited her further into believing the agreement was immi nent. And though he had put the offer out of his mind as a distasteful one, the surpri sing arrival of an invitation to a small Valentines fte at New India, of intimate acquaintances and neighbors was the final omen to both Charles and his mother th at Riverwood had made her peace with Providence. Breakfast and dinner became idle ev ents, filled with chatter about the divine prospect of an elegant evening at the Koenigs The rest of the day his mother retreated into the salon with her sewing and her us ual ministrations to the ailing Delilah. Freed to move about the house without fear, Charles found himself continuing to follow activity on his land. The house seemed somehow smaller and less interesting than the ordered motions of his slaves. A spell of afternoon rains at last purged the stench of the pond and the air at Riverwood began to ease as the pollen washed away and the forest succumbed to a renascent green. Charles was pleased. He felt unburdened and admitted
69 to himself that even he looked forward to an evening at the Koenigs house, a two-tiered palace of wood, stone, and imported marble. The days rolled slowly to ward the fte, still some weeks away, and the i nhabitants of Riverwood found new pursuits to renew their attentions and structure their days. Luke was taken with Jed, and Wills and Tiny were occupied with overseeing a cl eaning of the slave cabins, demanded by Charles mother, who claimed she could not prea ch anymore in that stench. It was now the first Sunday morning of his mothers absence from the quarters. Charles dressed and watched out his window, ab le to see the forms of the slaves moving in and around the cabins, dashi ng the sides of the log cottage s with buckets of water and brushing down the sides with straw hand brooms. The children were carrying buckets of water back and forth from the pond, the littler ones playing with th e mud clumps formed by the washing and getting underfoot of the adults. Lukes form was easily visible as he passed on the outside of the cabins, running along the west edge of the lawn, and inspected the slaves work. He finished dres sing and went down to breakfast. Delilah was absent, but his mother was already seated at the far end of the table. Where is Delilah? he asked. Shes taking tea in her room, his mother replied. Tilly brought in two plates of griddle cakes, blissfully unadorned by citrus. Charles poured a helping of honey on his cakes and waited for Tilly to bring him his coffee. She reappeared and set a cup down be side him, leaving him a small coffee kettle, steaming at the spout. He poured hims elf a cup and took a leisurely drink. I do hope my absence from the quarters wont be a problem, his mother said.
70 Charles set down his cup and picked up his knife and fork, cutting into his griddle cakes. I imagine theyll be thrilled that th ey should miss the good Lords word, she continued. They are so much like children. He took a bite, recognizing that he was not required for the conversation. I remember, once, you crept into your fath ers personal toilet. I cant imagine how long you searched through his patent medi cines and what not, looking for something to take. You could not have been more than six years at the time and couldnt read a word on the packets. He looked up at her and she smiled at him over the rim of her teacup. You settled for castor oil. I imagine you recognized the bottle. I often had cause to give it to you. You were a very irregular little boy. He washed down another bite of griddle cake with more coffee. Imagine, drinking a whole bottle of castor, she said, laughing. She shook her head. His stomach convulsed in involuntary remembrance. Quite a way to get out of church, Charles. You were always too bright to keep out of trouble, she finished. He heard Tilly laugh softly behind him. His mother looked past him and he knew they were sharing a smile. Charles and his mother finished their plates in silence and Tilly took away the plates, leaving th em to finish their coffee and tea. It is Sunday, Charles. W hy did you not go to church?
71 I was not in the mood. Hmm, his mother replied, but she left it at that. She stood up suddenly and brought her cup and teapot to his end of the table, seating hersel f in the chair to his right. She pulled the chair a little closer to him and poured herself another cup. Ive been meaning to have a word with you about the fte, Charles. He nodded. Do you suppose we should let Delilah go? Sh e has been better these past weeks. But the journey is quite far and coach rides ar e such torture on a womans constitution. Ive been thinking the same thing, he said. But she will never forgive us if we dont let her go, his mother said. And I ache to see her so confined to the house. She picked up her teacup and took a long sip, setting it back down to add more sugar to the cup. He watched the back of her hands while sh e stirred in the sugar. Her hands were tracked with blue rivulets, lik e Delilahs, only his mothers were aged. Molasses-colored sun spots covered the blue ve ins that ran strong beneath her skin. He reached out suddenly and grasped her hand as she set dow n her teaspoon and squeezed it before he let go and poured himself another cup of coffee. His mother took up her tea with both hands and swirled the cup. Im afraid thats why Delilah is qu ite taken with your Negro, she said. He was confused at first, by what she meant.
72 She asks me about her, you know. And wh en she comes to the vegetable garden Delilah stands at the parlor window and stares out at her. Its not usual, Charles, she said, gripping her cup more tightly. I dont like it. I dont like it at all. You mean shes been watching the new slave woman? he asked, to assure himself he understood. Of course, that is what I mean, his moth er replied irritably. I think Delilahs confinement has been hard on her of late. Sh es getting quite grown up. This silly thing with your Negro, its a new distraction. Delila h is bright like you, Charles. She needs some new diversion. But that Negro Hellcat, he interjected. What? We named the Negro Hellcat. Howyouit must be a joke, Charles, and in poor taste. I rather thought you would appr eciate the name, he said. She stared at him and set her cup b ack down, standing up. She paced along the side of the table. I have too many other co ncerns to worry about your petty jibes at my heart, Charles. For the moment, her look to ld him. I think Delilah finds Hellcats presence as riveting as one of those stories of hers. I dare say you are both too much alike in that way. I do not read adventure stories. His mother scowled at him. No, but you ta ke an easy fancy to things, Charles. She waved a dismissive hand. I ts all beside the poi nt. My point is I think that it would
73 be best if Delilah had something to look fo rward to, to take her mind off this bastard woman who is plaguing our estate. You dont still think Say what you will, Charles. I have a womans intuition and none of your fancy. I know who she is. How could she possibly be a bastard of fathers? he demanded. Be logical, Mother. She is too tall, t oo ungainly, her eyes are pure br own without a hint of green, and her features are decidedl y of the black race. She ha s none of the pumpkin undertone that belies the mulatto and quadroon mixes. Delilah has taken an unhealthy interest in this stray, whatever the case, his mother replied. He stared at her profile while she st ood behind the chair she had occupied and gripped the back of the chair in her hands. You do agree with me, dont you, Mother? Its quite impossible that shes our fathers. I should never have kept her in that case. His mother looked at him for a long time. I suppose you are right, she said sitting down again and pressing a hand to her fo rehead. You would not keep her, then. Of course not. Contrary to what you think of my character, I am not intrigued by the idea of incest. His mother reached out a hand to him. He took it and she squeezed his hand this time. I am sorry, Charles. I have just been She sighed and let go of his hand. What shall we do about Delilah then? Do we let her attend?
74 I hope we may, he said. For her part, Delilah engaged in a silent ba ttle to prove to th eir mother that she would be well enough to travel to the fte for the evening. To that end, she had taken up pinching her cheeks to improve her color a nd wearing more undergarments to plump her frame. To Charles, her efforts gave her the appearance of a grossly-padded porcelain baby doll. How she thought his mother would remain unaware of her tricks, he did not know, but he was glad to see her so pr eoccupied. And his belated gift of Pride and Prejudice had only added to her feminine frenzy he thought. He had bought the book at the advice of Annabelle, having never read it hi mself, who said it was just the thing for a young girl of Lilahs nature. A rose in a dandelion bed Annabelle had called her, though they had never met. Everything came along well, and Charles was relieved that Riverwood had been granted a reprieve and that he was not required, but in a token manne r, to ensure that it progressed as it should. He had never spen t much time out among the gangs or at the barns or the stables. He had occasionally seen them when he was younger, when he sought out Henry or some other sibling, but he had not taken an interest in them at all then. He had been drawn to letters, classica l Greek works and Latin tractsa remnant of his desire to carry some of his Dickinson edu cation back with him. But reading had since become a triviality, as first his father passe d, then his brother, a nd finally his sister Marianne shortly thereafter, leaving only the three DeCoeurs. The volumes in his fathers study and the few books he kept in his room became mementos instead of
75 diversions. It was this small realization of what he had fo rfeited when his elder brother died that drove him completely into the fields He had a violent desire to shut out all traces of the culture he had lost and embr ace the gross physicality of plantation life, the constant sweat between his s houlder blades, the grit that sat under his nails and at the back of his teeth, the extended burning on the ba ck of his neck and hands when he braved the sun too long, the inescapab le smell of soil and decayi ng vegetation without stone buildings and industry to te mper the airs thickness. He told himself his growing interest in the management of Riverwood was just that, an inevitable, inescapable, growing in terest in Riverwood. That was why he had spoken to Old Mildred about a dress for Hellcat, to see to it himself, since Luke had said he would take care of it, and yet, Hellcat remained in the ill-f itting calico each time Charles observed her. Charles had talked to Old Mildred one day when she had been up at the house, sitting at the kitchen table, me nding the underskirt of Delilahs party dress. He had forgotten how old she was, not having seen her much of late. Her face was so well-wrinkled that it reminded him of walnuts. She was mending the waist of Delilahs crinoline skirt, while Tilly worked on the day s orange juice. A bucket of orange rinds sat between them on the floor and as he sa t down at the table a boy brought in another bucket of fresh oranges, which Tilly accepte d with a scowl. He wondered that Old Mildred sat so close to Tilly as the ju ice from the cooks squeezing splattered dangerously close to the white crinoline. He supposed the skirt would be worn beneath the dress itself, in any case. Millie-girl, I need a dress made up for that new girl, Hellcat, he said.
76 Old Mildred barely spared him a glance. Aint got no time with this here ladies work, she said. When youre done. Ill have some clot h brought from town. Shes too tall for that calico youve got her in now. Old Mildred pursed her lips, but said nothing. Its the same with all of us, Mass Charle s, Tilly replied for her. Mr. Luke buys em at the general come Christmas and we makes do. He looked over at her and she stopped he r squeezing to wipe down her hands and knead one hand along her shoulder before she cu t up another set of oranges and started to squeeze them. Well, Hellcat nots a common size, is she, he answered. Old Mildred set down the skirt in her la p and smoothed out a crinkle, holding the needle between her gnarled fingers. There be enough of this here cloth leftover for me to make somethin more? Tilly didnt never have no new headkerchief for her wedding to our Tom, like I promised her. I aint never had enough saved up, Young Massa Charles. Shush, Mama, Tilly said, sweeping the empty rinds off the table and pulling fresh oranges from the bucket. The boy reappear ed and placed a third set of oranges next to the first. Tilly muttered something under her breath and the boy took an orange off the top of the bucket before scampering out. Youre a common thief, Millie-girl, Charles replied. B ut I suppose I could manage a few yards extra, so long as you see you make her something pretty.
77 Mildred narrowed her eyes at him and Tilly stopped her work to look at him. Fitting, he corrected. That was how he came to start the journa l. The idea struck him that Hellcats inauguration was extraordinary. She took to the field work well enough, but the other slaves seemed loath to accommodate her. He supposed the other women were afraid that she was too tempting to their men. Especia lly when Old Mildred had given her the new dressa pretty, light blue cotton. Though it st ill fell just barely below her knees, it showed her waist, hips, and breasts to good advantage, Charles thought. As he was suitably pleased with Hellcats new garment, he had been only mildly upset to see that all the women had acquired new head kerchief s too, of the same light blue cotton. The morning he had spied the new dress he had ridden back to the house and dug out the journal Delilah had given him some Christmases before, filled with heavy, creamcolored paper bound in a brown leather, imprinted with a fleur de lis on the cover. Inside, Delilah had written To my dearest Charles and favorite brother in her flowing script on the first page. He had begun it as a personal journal. But the more time he spent away from the house, the more he decided that his mo ther, or sister for that matter, were not to be trusted, and, hence, he had burned the pa ges revealing his inne r thoughts and started the journal anew, as a record of his observat ions on the management of the slaves and the plantation, particularly Hellcat. That Hellcat could not speak was deemed a benefit by all, but it meant too that they were unsure whether she understood or whether she also sile ntly suffered from a
78 gross savagery and mental deficiency that would prevent her from learning. The unique difficulty of her teaching offered him an outle t to marry his northern education with his southern inheritance, by noting observations in his journal on the intim ate workings of his plantation estate. All these little observations gathered daily as Charles spent more time in the running of his plantation, began to intri gue him. He especially liked to follow the field gangs out after first bell, just after dawn when the light was rising in the sky, but the sun was not yet high. From afar, in the full tw ilight of morning, Hellcat seemed to him a mythic giantess among mortals. Her skin he ld a bronze undertone, like living armor, and she still carried herself tall, not yet s ubjected to the necessary punishments and corrections, though she had lost her cinnamon na p since they had shorn her to rid her of lice. He would watch until the day became t oo hot and then he would retreat to the veranda and record his observat ions in his journal. He ha d aspirations to make some example of Hellcat and publish it in The Southern Cultivator. They paid fair commissions on accepted pieces. Let Otto Koenig read his words while he perused the Middlemens drivel about the value of cattle. Charles was sitting at the small writing table in the parlor, drafting a clean copy of his first article, On the Acclimation of a Negro Giantess to a Fl orida Plantation Gang: Accounting for the Special Management of a Mute Negro, when Tom sought him out. His mother was taking her afternoon refres hment, fanning herself out of ennui, and Delilah was curled on the settee with her book, grimacing and smiling to herself, punctuating the silence with little gasps beneath her breath.
79 Massa Charles, Mr. Lukes looking to have a word, Tom said. Wheres your good Sunday shirt, Tom? Charles mother inquired. Tom smoothed down the front of his workaday shirt, liberally stained. Its bein washed, Missus. Tillys down at the pond having the girls wash all our clothes. Like you ask fo yesterday, Missus, he added. His mother quickened the pace of her fan. Yesterday, Thomas. It should have been done yesterday. You darkies have grow n sinfully lazy since I stopped preaching on Sundays. Perhaps I should see to it today, she said with a martyred sigh. One can never have enough of the good Lords words. Charles suppressed a smile. Tom shook his head vigorously. We pr aying every night, Missus, and we thankin the good Lord that Missus DeCoeu r taking a good rest from our poor souls. Charles mother frowned, causing Tom to add hastily, Even the angels need to rest they weary feet from good works. Charles moved toward the doorway to relieve Tom from further fabrication. Just so, his mother replied, with deli ght. Even pious soul s must be put upon. Charles followed Tom through the kitchen and outside where he allowed himself to laugh heartily. A narrow escape, eh, Tom? he asked. This way, Massa Charles. Mr. Lukes overseeing at the pond. They made their way to the pond. The slaves were gathered at its edge since it was Sunday and a day of rest from the field work. The women were scattered in the shallow water, dresses tied up between their legs, shaking clothes in the dark water,
80 twisting them and rubbing them down with soap cakes. Some of the men and older women were clustered in the shade of the royal palms and pines, smoking cob pipes, while others took turns thro wing the little ones into th e heart of the pond, sending up great splashes of water. A few were busy filling buckets, which they carried off in the direction of the house. Charles found Luke seated on a crude st ool under an old palmetto, Jed lying on the ground next to him with a hat to cove r his face while he dozed. Luke stood up quickly, motioning Charles onto the stool a nd seating himself on the ground. He nudged Jed with his boot, rousing the boy, who sat up gr oggily and gave Charles a bleary grin. His bloodshot eyes told Charles that Luke had introduced the boy to the managers penchant for drink. He took off the boys hat and tousled his hair affectionately, earning another sheepish smile from young Jed. Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Charles, Luke said. Took you too long, Charles said. He l eaned back on the tr unk, the tips of the platelets that covered the palm s trunk digging into his back. He moved a little from side to side to get a good scratch. Ive had a few things on my mind, sir, and not being a man to hide, I wanted to bring em to you direct. Have at it, Luke. Whats on your mind? I figure Ive seen you out at the work site s more in the last month than I seen you since I started as Mr. DeCoeurs foreman. And?
81 Well, if youre not happy with my work, Mr. Charles, Id prefer it if you told me so I can see about getting it done to your liking. Im a reas onable man and I aint never had no complaints about my management yet. Charles shook his head. I am not unha ppy with your work, Luke. Not at all. He was quiet for a moment before continuing. It seems to me that after some months as Riverwoods master, it is time I took an interest in her most intimate workings. He watched another pickaninny sail through the air a nd land in the water in a flurry of spray. The girl tossed in the water buoyed to the su rface and paddled towa rd the edge of the pond. Charles looked over at Luke, who was chewing on a short st ick thoughtfully. At last Luke nodded. You eased my mind, Mr. Charles. Eased my mind. You sound surprised. Not at all, sir. I just thought you wa snt the overseeing kind. Luke cleared his throat. I had something else weighing on my mind. He spit out the tip of the stick and chewed on the remainder. Well? What is this ot her concern? Charles asked. Luke stood up. Ill show you, sir, he said. They took the path toward the house. Ch arles pointed at the slow line of buckets being carried away from the pond. What ar e they doing? Cleani ng cabins again? he asked, as they followed behind one of the women who carried a full bucket, her hip overextended to accommodate the weight. They slowed their pace to stay well behind her.
82 Luke shook his head and motioned in the di rection they were walking. Ill show you, sir, he repeated. They crossed the lawn, arriving at the vegetable garden where fresh, neat little rows had been dug in the dusty earth. To m and Hellcat were planting tiny seedlings, loosely packed in soil held in glass pres erve jars. The slave woman with the bucket poured out her water along a planted row, f illing up the channels with a dark mud. As she passed him, he recognized her as Mart ha, the skin on her neck white where it disappeared into the front of her dress, a burn she had earned over a foolish incident with a boy from over at Briar, some years back. Where did you find them? Charles sai d, squatting down to finger one of the small plants leaves, covered in a soft fuzz that clutched at the tip of his fingers. The tomato shoots is from Abe, Luke replied. Seems last time Tom was on a pass at the Briar he told em how our garden wasnt showing yet and things was getting desperate at the house. Charles nodded and stood up. How long? Few weeks at most, Luke said. He moved closer to Charles. This heres the other problem, he said in a low voice. Charles followed his gaze to where Hellcat had tucked her extensive frame into a squat, digging into the dirt with her fi ngers and slipping a seedling into the ground, covering the roots and patting once before tottering toward the next hole and seedling. The slaves wont have her, Luke said quietly. We been letting her sleep out by the pond. Dont seem to bother her, but its got the slaves mighty upset.
83 You mean they wont let her in one of the cabins? Why not? Luke shrugged. On account of her behavior. Charles frowned. What behavior? At night she hums. And, Luke cleare d his throat uncomfortably, she hums, he finished half-heartedly. Nonsense. Why would they be scared of humming? Luke avoided his eyes and shrugged. Ch arles stared at his profile in silence before turning his attention to another slave who brought more water. He stared at the face, but this boy was unknown to him. Cowards. Complete fools. I wont hear of it. You said yourself shes an ox. She is worth two female slaves, even one gr own, well-fed man. He looked at Luke to reassure himself of his train of thought. The foreman only shrugged. Still, I got to keep her somewhere and the slaves wont have none of it. I aint put my foot down because its not like our people to cause problems. So I reckon they good an scared to make such a fuss. Charles crossed his arms and shook his head, not knowing what Luke thought he should say. It flitted through his mind that he almost wished Henry was here. You sure they wont take her into the cabins? What about Tilly and Tom? They were always level-headed niggers. Or Wills, have Wills taken her in? Luke shrugged. I can have her put anywhere. I just spect on there being some fussing and carrying on when I do it. What other way around it is there?
84 We could build her a place out by the pond. Charles shook his head. I wont pay for lumber and all that for one Negro woman who hums at night. See to it, Luke. I dont care where you put her, but she stays in the quarters. And unless she acts up dur ing the workaday, I dont care how she acts otherwise. Luke nodded. Just as you say, Mr. Charle s. Just as you say. He cleared his throat again. We could sell her. As you sa y, shes as strong as field slaves come. Mind, as long as we talk around her tongue being gone, we could get a good price for her. Six hundred at least, maybe even eight-fifty. Charles shook his head. Six hundred would buy She is not for sale, Charles said. Luke shrugged and jammed his hands in his armpits. This here plantation is a regular investment, Mr. Charles. All Im as king is, she the kind of investment you want? Cause therell be trouble sure as Im standing here. The only trouble I see is a foreman w ho doesnt have the stomach for doing his job as it should be. Break her in properly and you wont have anything to worry about. Luke shrugged again. I aint got no problem breaking in a nigger woman, even if she is a bigun. Charles looked over at him. Whatever n eeds to be done. So long as its within reason. Luke gave him a search ing look, but said nothing.
85 * Charles tried to put the conversation out of his mind, but the more he thought on it, the more it intrigued him, and he began to follow the gangs religiously. He would approach the field from the south on his mare, in calm anticipation of the first glimpse of Hellcat among them. Like dark shadows, his slaves would appear at the periphery of his vision, filing northward from the hazy cabins and the dusty alley of the slaves quarters and emerging into the open e xpanse of soil. The stable boys and Jed would cross the grassy lawn from the east, bringing the lumbering cows and the few old mares they had for plowing, Tiny following behind them we ighted with tackle and the bow and crosspieces for the yokes. L uke would raise his whip. Step lively, niggers, he would call and whirl the whip over his head, crack ing it like a shot and lording between the plow gangs, the weed gangs, the seed gangs, like a bobcat tamer Charles had once seen at a fair. Then his Negroes would start up their singing, dipping up and down like dark birds as they pulled weeds to free the soil for rows of the white gold that would see Riverwood through another year, Charles was sure of it. Try as he might to understand what L uke hinted, but was unwilling to say, he could see nothing troubling about Hellcat, but that she was a gang unto herself. She worked her rows alone and Luke or the driver s would yell at her, but the other Negroes never approached her. Occasionally she would wipe down the sweat on her face and stare at the other slaves. Still, Luke told Charles he let her be because her work was so steady that he thought better of it, reserving his lashes and cuffs for the other slaves that faltered in the heat, mostly the young ones who ha d yet to acquire grit. Charles liked to
86 watch Hellcat walk, her long unhur ried strides; she did not shuffle like the other women, with their gnarled feet and heavy, awkward steps measured by missing toes and scarred welts. Never once did Charles see the squareness of Hellcats shoulders falter or her back bend in a weary curve. Luke, unable to convince the other slaves to house her, and Charles, unwilling to accommodate his instructions to the stalemate, allowed her to sleep by the pond. So Wills made her a small lean-to shack and Luke gave her an allotment of one pair of shoes, on which they had to cut out the toes to fit her broad feet, and two sacks for bedding, which she filled with Spanish moss and other woody stuffing. It occurred to Charles that she might as soon wander away one night as stay his slave, but they had no stockade and he did not wish to keep her in the stables. He solved his concerns by requiring Wills to check on her at intervals during the night. Wills reported nothing amiss, but Charles had the impression that the mulatto too, at Lukes instruction, was hiding something from him. Admittedly, had it been any other slave, he would not have worried himself with it, but Hellcat ha d become his curiosity and diversion. He therefore decided to check on her hi mself one evening. He chose a full moon, to better avoid snakes and other critters on th e walk to the pond. He took the long path to the pond, going not by way of the slaves quarters, but around to the east, through the open fields, aware that Luke had developed the sudden habit of sitting outside his cabin to take his evening bottle. So Charles gave the quarters a wide berth and approached the pond through the woods, from the north, catchi ng glimpses of the sparkle in the full
87 moonlight. When he arrived, Hellcats pl ace was empty, the pond deserted. He had stood, still hidden behind the palmetto s, struck by a sudden realization. It was the emptiness of the spot that pushed his mind into contemplation. He wondered what she did alone at night. Whether she stayed in the lean -to or if she didnt sometimes sit at the edge of the pond and smoke a pipe, like the other women did outside their cabins. Except she would be alone, no other women to laugh with her, or pull her nap into those strange braids. He could imag ine her standing at the edge of the murky pond in the moonlight. How easy it would be to walk down to the edge of the pond if she were there, perhaps ten steps, eight by her long strides. His eyes closed involuntarily. He could imagine her long frame, the light blue cotton clinging to her. There was no breeze, but it did not matter; she would shift, turn to watch him approach her, and the fabric would catch about her thighs. He would be almost to her, reach out a hand to catch her bare forearm, when she would step back from him, her steps swirling in the water as she backed into the pond. He would shake hi s head, hold out his palms to show that he meant no harm, smile at her and enter the wa ter with her, the coolness of it causing his inflamed skin to ache. He would reach his hand out and touch that dark skin to trace one finger along that silent jaw of hers. Her dark eyes would reflect the moonlight as diamonds in the black of her eyes, glowing like her feline namesakes. She would know by his touch, by the way he held her, but did not grip her, by the way he pulled away the coarse blue cotton from her so-smooth skin, a nd put his lips to that exposed shoulder, the one that had held the gold, that his was a need, not a command. He would kiss her lips then and know what it was to taste blackberries in the dead of night. He would .
88 Something snapped in the darkness, recal ling him to his surroundings. He turned around, blood rushing in his ears. Hellcat st ood behind him, her eyes indeed glinting in the darkness, but with somethi ng that made his skin cold, no t hot. She stared at him and he was sure she recognized his inflamed stat e, that she could see the hunger for her that had led him here. The longer she held his ey es, the more his heart pounded and it struck him as ridiculous that he did not move to her. But the buzzing of his ears created an eerie silence. She was just a woman, but they were alone, and she was looking at him in such a way . She stepped toward him and it was as if a wall of air pressed against his chest. She took another step, now only a few inches away. Then she opened her mouth and her chest shuddered, her arms jangling from her shoulders and a soft sound like a blacksmiths bellows escaping her throat. She was laughing, he realized, and she continued to laugh as she walk ed around him, her low laughter floating past him. He listened to her feet crackle over the fallen pine needles and gritty soil as she made her way toward the pond. Through the thin veil of trees, he saw a li ght flicker on in an upper room of the house. His mothers room. He roused hims elf and walked, then hurried, back to the house, trying to focus on his aching lungs and not what had happened, but he knew the burning could have been humiliation as easil y as exertion. He slipped into the house through the kitchen, walking as silently as he could across the old wooden floor boards, passing over the second step on the back stairc ase so it would not give him away. He peered into the hall that led past his sisters and mothers rooms. An amber aura came
89 from under his mothers door, but there wa s no sound. He took a silent breath and stepped onto the landing. He walked down the hallway as qu ietly as his twitching thighs would allow. A shuffling sound behind the door warned him that his mother was out of bed. He changed course and turned abruptly into the bathroom across from her room, pulling out his shirt haphazardly and bending over the po rcelain bowl to splash his face with cold water from the ewer his grandmother had give n to his parents for their wedding. He let the water drip off his nose, staring at th e blue children seated in a wagon, merrily mocking him from the side of the pitcher. Charles? his mother called from the doorway. Seeking time to compose his lie, he a voided the doorway with his eyes, picking up a clean linen from the wash table and rubbing his face. Charles, I will have a word with you. He lowered the linen from his eyes a nd watched his mothers long grey hair flourish as she turned her back on him and left. He waited long enough to hear her steps on the main staircase, then tossed the linen in a corner of the bathroom and followed her. In the parlor, Charles. He made his way into the parlor where a small candle flickered on the letter desk. His mother stood by the window. He wandered toward one of the bookcases and stared at the leather-bound volumes gild ed with flaking gold titles. This must stop. I will not allow my son to take up with a Negro.
90 Im not taking up with her, Mother. He fingered one of the volumes and pulled it out to give his shaking hands some thing to hold on to. I only You do not think following her to the pond in the middle of the night, watching her, she hissed the word as if it were dirty, is acceptable for any son of mine? Or have you forgotten how much disgrace your father brought on this family by taking up with one of our slaves? Giving her that dirty backwater farm on the St. Johns? How did you know I For Gods sake, Charles, you know Wills was watching after her at night, as you asked. Im only thankful that he was a good boy and came straight away to tell me you had gone to see her. His mother compressed her lips and he slammed the book closed. I am not my father. And well you should see that you dont b ecome him, Charles! Leave this disgusting obsession behind. If its compan ionship you seek, then perhaps its time you took a trip to the North or I could have a word with the Thompsons about one of their daughters He shoved the book back in place and headed for the door. I dont need you to worry about my needs, Mother. And what about your soul? My God, if you we re to bed her, being what she is to yousin starts in the mind, Charles, she calle d after him as he t ook the stairs, headed for the safety of his own bed.
91 He heard quick footsteps behind him a nd his mothers bony fingers clasped his arm, stopping him halfway up the stairs. Do you think I did not notice that dress? Do you think I did not guess at its meaning? You had clothing made for a slave Charles. What will you buy her next? What pretty trinket will you br ing her from towna perfume, or perhaps a brooch? You see, I know how these things are. You will buy her little things and she will think she is better than the others. She will seduce you to earn herself a place at the house and then she will run to you every time Luke demands she be punished for what she has done wrong. And she will do wrong, Charles. Do not think these dark hussies look for affection in a master. She will use you to secure herself a place at Riverwood. She will let you bed her to get what she wants, Charles. Even though she likely shares your fathers blood. He tried to shake his arm free of her. Listen to me, Charles! I have not se en this family through tremendous scandal and your fathers incompetence just to watch yo u ruin it for some nigger woman! Even if your bed is not her aim, have you not seen the look in her eyes? Ther e is murder there, Charles, and you are no son of mine if you cannot see it! He spun around, putting her off balance. She teetered dangerously for a moment, before he grabbed her and pu lled her close to keep her fr om falling. She shook gently and he could hear the short gasps as the s obs came more freely. He pushed her a little away from him and she gripped his shirt.
92 I wont bankrupt Riverwood for a Negro, Mother. But she needs keeping an eye on Dont lie to me, Charles. I am far too old and had too many boys of my own, even if they are mostly passed now, she sa id. She sniffled, but stood up straighter. You cannot lie to me. Think of Delilah, Ch arles, if not of me. If your familys reputation and Reputation? he said releas ing her and mounting the stai rs again. To hell with our reputation. Father destr oyed that long before I had a chance to do the same. He stopped and turned to look at her as she labored up the stairs with one hand on the banister, wiping her cheeks. And how dare you bring Lilah into this? She learns from you, Charles, like you learned from your father. When she marries? Would you stand for her husband to ta ke up with a Negro? In her own house, before her own eyes? He grabbed her arm and shook her. I am not bedding that woman! he shouted. His mother started to cry again and he le t her go with disgust. He turned around and saw a shadow from Delilahs doorway before the door closed with a soft click. He turned back around. Shush now, Mother, he said softly. Well wake Lilly. Promise me, Charles. There is nothing to promise. Promise me, youll think of Riverwood first before you do anything. Promise me.
93 He sighed. Of course. I thi nk of Riverwood first, always. His mother took his hand and pressed it to her cheek. Promise me, Charles. She stared at him with an in tensity that forced him to l ook away. I have lost five children and a husband to this wilderness. I wi ll not lose my home as well. She kissed the back of his hand. Promise me. He removed his hand from her grip. I gave my word, Mother. Thats enough for any woman. He escaped to his room and slammed hi s door, locking it for good measure. He took off his shirt and dampened it in the bowl, wiping down his chest and face again, while he tried to settle his mind and thi nk. Fool, he thought, and stood up abruptly throwing the linen at the washst and. It sent the porcelain bowl cracking in to the wall behind and it shattered on the floor. He stalked around his room, finally throwing open the window and leaning his hands on the fram e while he took deep measured breaths to calm himself. But his groin ached and his neck was hot with anger. This was ridiculous. He was master of Riverwood and his mother had no say in how he ran his estate or what he did with his niggers. He should not have let it go for so long. He should not have idled by six months while everyone around him determined that he was some boy to be reprimanded at every turn. As for Hellcat, why in hell had he just star ed at her? He should have had her if that was his wish. He worked his jaw, en joying the way the grind of his teeth drowned out the echo of his mothers words in his mi nd. A mild breeze cooled his temples and he closed his eyes against the moonlight. He had been a fool. With everyone. He leaned
94 out of the window and tried to see the beginning of the dirt road that led into the woods and toward the pond, but it was too far, he saw nothing but Wills cabin. Even if he took the nigger woman it would not be like his father he thought bitterly. His father had been fool enough to think he cared for Lorna. Char les knew his ache to be lust, and curiosity, to imagine what those wide shoulders and broad face would look like laid out underneath him. He shook his head and went back to sit on the edge of the bed, before lying down and closing his eyes, not cari ng that his boots littered his bed with needles and debris from the pond. As much as he thought his mo ther was mad, slightly wild since she had been confined to Riverwood by widowhood, a nd relegated to a maternal martyrdom when Charles inherited the estate . he s hook his head again. He supposed she might be right that Hellcat was a poor choice of bedmates, if he were to bed a Negress. My God if you were to bed her, being what she is to yousin starts in the mind Charles! He opened his eyes and stared at the white ceiling above him. Being what she is to you . My God, he thought, and rubbed his face. His mother still thought she was Daddys bastard. He sighed and rolled onto his side. Imagine, bedding Daddys mulatto. Ridicul ous. It was no wonder his mother had avoided the cabins. He had thought she had believed his lie. That she still feared Hellcats origins he had no idea. He suppos ed he had not been paying attention much since he had taken an interest in the plantation. As much as it irked him, his mothers ludicrous ideas were a blessing. Life had been, briefly, more bearable at Riverwood when she had relegated herself to matters of the house. And if believing Hellcat were an
95 avenging Negress ensured his mothers self-imposed confinement, then perhaps it was more to his advantage to leave the woman al one and let his mother pursue her fancies. Anything to be done with the arguments. And he would never be his father. His father was a fool. Charles would be no fool. If only his mother were taken with someth ing else and he were free to see to the estate as he chose. If she trusted him in business matters, perhaps. Not likely. Perhaps Luke was right and he should sell the woman. If she was worth six hundred or more . but it was not enough. Riverwood needed more, mu ch more, to escape the debtors snare that held his family. Charles had no idea how to overcome it. He had already sold slaves this year and now they would be pressed to work the fields with what they had. The estate would be as profitable as a park in Charleston without enough slaves to work it. It just came down to which price he would rather pay. Hellcats or his mothers. At least Hellcats had a market value, he thought wryl y, whether he worked her or sold her. His mother was just an expense. He rubbed his eyes. That was unfair. So was Delilah, but he loved both women, much as they were financial nuisances and busybodies like all women. Imagine if he married. He would have three women to upkeep.
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Cogswell, Bernadette Kafwimbi.
h [electronic resource] /
by Bernadette Kafwimbi Cogswell.
[Tampa, Fla.] :
b University of South Florida,
ABSTRACT: This thesis consists of the two opening chapters of American Odyssey, a nouveau plantation novel that has its roots in two American fiction traditions---the nineteenth-century plantation novel and the twentieth-century neo-slave narrative. It is 1855 and Charles DeCoeur's only motivation to remain Riverwood's owner and master is that his widowed mother and sickly sister rely on the profits of the estate. Charles chafes under the responsibility and physicality of plantation life, unable to reconcile himself to the role of master of a cotton estate in the forgotten heart of East Florida. Then a female Negro, Hellcat, wanders onto the Riverwood estate. Attracted to the woman's unusual appearance and disposition, Charles readily claims her as his property. It is not long before Charles channels his ennui into a renewed interest in Riverwood's workings, a thinly-veiled attempt to hide his growing obsession with the mysterious slave woman. However, tensions are mounting all around Charles. The estate is approaching bankruptcy, the overseer and slaves believe Hellcat has dark intentions, and Charles' mother believes the slave is a bastard child from her husband's scandalous past. But Charles refuses to listen to those around him and continues to let his desires guide his actions, while Hellcat's presence at Riverwood opens new wounds that threaten everyone around her.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2007.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 95 pages.
Advisor: Rita Ciresi, M.F.A.
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.