A fictional meditation on the darkest chapter of American history.
|Twelve hundred for a fine buck nigger name of Alexander. Step up, country boys, for this one was conceived, delivered, and lived his whole damn life in a cotton patch. Observe! Alexander, stick out your hands. Stick em out. See where the thorns have pricked the palms! The digits are calloused thick as stone, sir! See the size of the brachioradialis, madam!
I hear thirteen hundred. I say; do you happen to be a planter, sir?
What do you think, Mr. Parsons?
Ha! You are wise to pursue Alexander, sir. This one is strong, yet obedient.
Auctioneer! I bid Thirteen hundred fifty!
I hear thirteen hundred fifty. Gracious!
Dammit. Do me a favor, Parsons.
Now, now. I know you have more in you, sir.
Fourteen hundred. Dammit.
I hear fourteen hundred. Four fifty, do I hear four fifty? No? Goin once goin twice and SOLD to the gentleman with the straw hat and the cat o' nine tails on his hip. Off with you, boy. Mind the details, Webb. How about you, sir?
Yes, you. Interested in bringin home a field nigger this fine mornin?
Got any house niggers?
Webb! Fetch Daphne! You'll like this one, sir. She is a beauty – and yours for nine fifty.
I don't need a pretty one. I need a clever one.
A clever nigger?
Clever as niggers get. Were I an antique Roman, I'd be lookin to obtain a Grecian nigger.
Greek slaves were learned in Rome of old! Good luck findin a nigger with knowledge of heliocentrism!
Well of course I don't want one that's too bright.
Webb! Fetch Abigail! I think I have just what you need, sir. This one is useful. Rotund yet unobtrusive. She can cook, she can clean...
She has a bad back.
Perhaps. Yours for eight fifty.
Let me elucidate. See, my momma's gettin on in age and I ain't got the time nor the inclination to do everything for her. She needs somethin to browbeat – and it ain't gonna be me. Momma's stubborn, though. It ain't her nature to accept help. I want a nigger she'd like.
What does your mother look for in a nigger?
Children bring out her best qualities.
Hmm. Webb, get Scipio. This child has intelligence after a fashion. He's like a hoss that knows the way home. You can have him for six hundred.
I will not present that nigger to my aged mother. That nigger's half-wild.
This is just a bad mornin for Scipio. Ain't it, boy?
I can see why you want to get rid of him. I wouldn't take that nigger if you paid me. My momma'd eat him alive. She don't suffer no fool niggers.
I ain't no fool, I's –
I's a good house nigger, marse. I be like the nigger nephew your momma never had.
You honey-tongued nigger! Shut your mouth. Quit your grovelin. See, sir, he can be charmin when he wants to be.
I'll fold her sheets and lay out her doilies. Buy me, marse. I'll scrub out her spittoon and help her down stairs. I done the same for Mrs. Parsons when she was poorly. I done –
Your nigger drives a harder bargain than you.
He wants outta fieldwork, is all. Take him back, Webb.
Wait a moment. Scipio, do you know how to lie?
Ha! I'll take him.
That was 1857.
In 1869 I tilled ten acres of tobacco crop in Forsyth County, North Carolina. It was April, the height of transplant season. One morning I rode to town for feed and whisky. It was a sweltering day as I recall. It can get powerful hot down here in the summer; the sort of heat that'll drench you in sweat afore you even set foot on the porch. My bad leg cramped up as I crossed the thoroughfare so I had a sit on the bench outside the livery to rest up. I uncorked my fresh jug of whisky and took refreshment, my first of the day.
"Might I interest you in a new pair of trousers, Mr. Meeks?" This was Mr. Timothy Scopes, hollering at me from next door. Scopes was the carpetbagger from Allentown, New Jersey who had bought out Vogler's Dry Goods in '67. He said, "Those old grey things look like they've seen battle. I have leggings of the finest blue wool just inside."
"Damn your eyes, Scopes," said I.
Scopes threw back his head and laughed. Yankees have a raucous sense of humor. "I've been looking for you," he said, striding down to my bench.
I imagined he had uncovered some war trivia he wished to share with me. Though I found his politics loathsome, Scopes and I had a hell of a lot in common and rarely wanted for a subject of discourse. He was a veteran, like myself, and a cripple, like myself – surgeons hacked off his left arm on account of a wound taken in the Wilderness. Both of us were at Gettysburg, though our regiments never met – Scopes was burning out the Bliss farm whilst I was at Devil's Den.
Scopes laid a thin little volume upon my knee. I blinked. The cover read, An Account of the Bondage and Liberation of Scipio Eliot, written by Scipio Eliot. "You lived in Alabama before the war, did you not?"
"Yes." Below the title was a sketch of a slight nigger. The lines were rough but I recognized that split lip and those sunken eyes at once.
"Did you ever hold a darkie called Scipio?" he asked.
I hadn't given Scipio a thought in years. "I did," I replied, "but this can't be him." Scipio couldn't write.
"He mentions you by name, Mr. Meeks, and writes extensively of your family," Scopes said. He took up the book and flipped through the pages. "My uncle Luke works in a publishing house in Atlantic City. He sends me a box of books every month in the post. He recommended Eliot in particular, wrote that copies were flying off the shelves in the Northeast. I'm not surprised – he's quite the wordsmith. Let's see... ah! There you are."
A tall man in his late-twenties with thick whiskers and a paisley vest then approached Master Parsons, the book read. He was in the market for a house slave, and indicated as much. Desperate to be rid of the barbarous Parsons I threw myself at the whiskered man's feet, which amused him. He asked me if I was a good liar. I answered, "No, master." He laughed and purchased me on the spot. The fellow was named Ephraim Meeks, and he was my last master before Emancipation.
"I'll be damned," I said. Could it be? Whilst he was my bondsman, Scipio spoke with the near unintelligible jargon that passes for English amongst delineators of the sable character; were the book not an account of slavery, I never would've known its author was a nigger, and I could not but be astonished at the propriety of the language. Where had Scipio learned to write so good?
"Keep the book," Scopes said. "I finished it yesterday. I don't know how much of it is true, but I must warn you – it gets pretty grim toward the end." He glanced toward his store, which Mr. and Mrs. McAllister from down Old Salem way presently entered. "Well, mustn't keep the customers waiting. Will you offer me libation for the road, Mr. Meeks?"
"At ten o'clock in the mornin? For shame." I handed him the whisky.
He took a long swig and belched as he laid the jug back on the bench. "What can I say? This fetid region breeds moral degradation. See you in hell, Johnny Reb," Scopes said.
"See you in hell, Billy Yank." I tipped my hat and buried my nose in Scipio's book.
I turned to the first page. It read, I was born a slave in either 1846 or 1847 in Hamilton County, Tennessee (as far as I know). I was separated from my mother and father at birth and sold to the planter Reginald Phipps of Rome, Georgia. If my parents still live,
they likely remain in the South, which for a Negro is a still a species of bondage...
I took another drink.
Whereas, the election of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin to the offices of president and vice-president of the United States of America, by a sectional party, avowedly hostile to the domestic institutions and to the peace and security of the people of Alabama, preceded by many and dangerous infractions... et cetera et cetera... Alabama now withdraws, and is hereby withdrawn from the United States of America, and henceforth ceases to be one of said United States, and is, and of right ought to be a Sovereign and Independent State!
Glorious day! Would that your dear father had lived to see Alabama throw off the yoke of Federalist tyranny.
They ain't Federalists, momma. This ain't the Era of Good Feelins.
It sure ain't. Era of Bad Feelins, more like.
You wanna hear the ordnance or not?
I thought you'd finished, dear.
Nearly. Done by the people of the state of Alabama, in Convention assembled, et cetera, the eleventh of January, A.D. eighteen sixty one.
More coffee, Miss Juliet?
Yes, Scipio. More coffee. Ephraim, I am so happy God has seen fit to divorce us, now and forever, from the treacherous Northern states. I feel like an Israelite watchin the Red Sea tumble down over Pharaoh's chariots.
Momma, the South just spread her arms and parted the Red Sea, if that's the metaphor you favor. We got a long walk afore the water comes crashin atop the heads of the Lincolnites. What's funny, boy?
Nothin marse. Suppressin a sneeze is all I was doin.
Scripture oft amuses Scipio, dear.
The nigger's lucky I studied Matthew this mornin instead of Judges.
Oh, let the nigger alone, Ephraim.
I rue the day I bought that nigger, momma. He ain't got no respect for his betters.
But he does what I say. Ain't that the important thing? Scipio, git.
I'm ridin to Gunter's Ferry, momma.
Of course you are.
I'm gonna join the Home Guard.
The Home Guard? No, no, son. You're gonna join the infantry, like your daddy and his daddy afore him, and you're gonna make a name for yourself fightin in the war.
War ain't a foregone conclusion, momma. Only thing foregone about this situation is the newspapers are gonna make a fortune – and them boys signin up for the infantry are gonna spend the spring encamped, bored outta their skulls. On the other hand, if I join the Home Guard, I ain't gotta leave the county.
Oh, there's gonna be a war. I feel it comin on the air like a wind. I felt Mexico comin too, except we ain't content to fight Injuns and Papists no more. We're ready for a war betwixt white men on a scale that'd put Bonaparte to shame. This nation is long overdue for a bloodlettin. You'll see.
That ain't no kind of outlook. You'll be singin another tune if I'm killed. Who's gonna bring in the harvest iff'n I go? You take that into consideration, momma?
Why, the niggers.
Who's gonna motivate the niggers? Kincaid? He left for Gunter's Ferry yesterday.
I'll take on another overseer, don't you worry none. Bless your heart, Ephraim, you behave as though gettin soused and whoopin niggers is essential work around here. You know as well as I: this plantation damn well runs itself.
What about Emily, momma? What about Tom?
One day Tom will take pride in your service. Emily despises the Yankees. She shall understand.
Marse Ephraim joined the infantry and left for the war in August of 1861, Scipio wrote. His departure filled his "niggers" with joy. I was especially heartened by his absence. Marse Ephraim demurred from beating children, but by this time I was a year into my adolescence, and he had deemed me man enough for corporal punishment. I felt the end of the lash whenever the master perceived I was "mouthing off," which was often. I made for a terrible slave. It is a miracle I survived my childhood.
We Negroes knew our days of (relative) gaiety and leisure were numbered. It was only a matter of time before the mistresses hired another overseer – but that night, free of our master, we celebrated. George rustled up a feast of ax-cut bacon, corn whisky and coffee. We sat around the fire until the small hours, filling our gourds and our bellies, telling stories and laughing.
I have a distinct memory from that night: looking up at the stars, I considered escape for the first time. Of course I had dreamt of it often enough – what slave has not? – but this was the first time I gave myself permission to puzzle through the logistics of such an undertaking. Before that night, speculating on escape had felt like a shameful secret thought, like covetousness. But as I looked upon the firmament, I realized that escape was the natural response to the unnatural institution of slavery. The North Star shone bright above me, and I resolved I would one day follow it to freedom.
"Damn nigger," Bill said, and tossed the book onto the table. I poured us both another drink.
Bill Ruggles was the reason I moved to Forsyth County. My farm was once part of the Ruggles farm, but Bill's daddy split the land in his will, givin half to Bill and half to his elder brother Herbert. Herb was shot as a deserter in '64, so when General Lee told us all to go home I bought the spit of land from Bill at a premium.
It was just as well. I couldn't go back to Alabama after what had happened.
I met Bill in Maryland in '62. He saved my life. If it weren't for Corporal Ruggles and his seven-inch bowie knife, I'd have fallen prey to the bite of a cottonmouth coiled up in my bedroll. A venomous snake ain't no kind of bedfellow, no matter how lonely you get in the army.
It was an hour past midnight. Bill and me were sittin in my common room, readin by the light of an oil lamp. I upturned my whisky and scowled as it burned down my gullet. Bill lit a cigar. "He's right about one thing," I said, fishing through my pockets for a smoke of my own. "He was a terrible slave."
Bill handed me one of his cigars. I thanked him. "No matter how bad things get here," he said, "I ain't never goin north. Never. Not if God wiped away every state south of Mason-Dixon in a latter-day Flood. Better to let the torrent rush over my head. They've won their war and now they expect us to take a nigger's word over a white man's! Welcome to the new America, a nation of niggerlovers. Goddamn." He yawned and stood up. "I'm gonna fetch my banjo."
"All right." I lit my cigar with the lamp flame and opened the book. Scipio wrote: The new overseer was called James Hendricks. He arrived later that month and signed a contract with the Meeks' under the supervision of the family lawyer, one Mr. Dodd, Christian name not now remembered. Dodd advised Miss Juliet and Miss Emily to sign the contract under little Tom's name instead of Marse Ephraim's, in the "unlikely event that Mr. Meeks should not return from the war." The mention of this prospect visibly upset the mistresses. It filled me with secret glee.
So Hendricks signed a contract with a one year-old boy, and for the next four years was the bane of my miserable existence. Up of a sudden I felt like I was back at the Parsons plantation, where murder and mutilation were shrugged off as the cost of business. Hendricks was sober, upright, hawkeyed, twice as old and twice as cruel as Ephraim Meeks. His first day, he woke us ere dawn with the shrill sound of the whistle he kept on a string about his neck.
We woke and lined up outside without delay – all save George, who was slow to wake. He had liberally medicated himself with corn whisky the night previous. When Hendricks realized one of the Negroes was unaccounted for, he uncoiled his whip and strode into our quarters.
"Get up, you Dionysian nigger," he said, then we heard the whip crack. I winced. "I'll learn you to loaf, nigger. Get up! Get up!" he shouted. The whip cracked and cracked. Poor George squealed and pleaded for help, but not one of us dared go to his defense. After a minute Hendricks emerged, spots of blood upon his cheeks. He stretched his back and said, "Look lively, niggers! You're Marse Jim's now. Git! That cotton ain't gonna pick itself. Come on now! I wanna hear y'all singin at your work."
I began to walk toward the master's house, as I had every morning for years – but Hendricks stopped me.
"Where you off to, nigger?"
"I's gonna fix some coffee for Miss Juliet, marse."
"No, no, no. That drunken nigger in there's too poorly to pick today. Another nigger's gotta take his place out in the field."
"I's a house nigger. Marse Ephraim bought me to look after his momma. She don't get her mornin coffee, she get awful cranky. I don't want to get you in no troub–"
Hendricks struck me in the ear with savage force. I caterwauled back and fell to my side in the dirt. "Get up and get pickin, boy," the overseer said. The other Negroes started to sing I Be So Glad When The Sun Goes Down. "You know this song?" Hendricks asked me.
"You will by suppertime," he said, and laughed.
Bill returned with his banjo. He put his feet up and took to tuning the instrument.
Around noon Miss Juliet sent Betsy, one of the house niggers, to fetch me. I had not picked cotton since I was the property of the Parsons, and I was quite rusty. I barely picked twenty pounds that morning, and my hands were bleeding from thorns and bug bites.
"Take him back," was Hendricks' response to Betsy's request. "Boy's useless."
As we walked, I asked Betsy if Miss Juliet was angry with Hendricks. "Not angry at him so much as vexed at you," she replied. My heart sank.
We found Miss Emily in the parlor, teaching little Tom to walk. His mother lifted his hands above his head, and the infant marveled at the novelty of a bipedal vantage before slipping and falling to his hands and knees. When Miss Emily saw us she said, "Mamaw's waitin in the summer kitchen."
We descended to the cellar. Miss Juliet was sipping at coffee and reading the Bible. She told Betsy to take her leave.
"Betsy's coffee tastes of cat piss," she said without glancing up. I approached and she turned to look at me. Her countenance changed into something resembling sympathy. "Why, Scipio Meeks. You're all used up." She bid me sit opposite her and poured me a cup of Betsy's coffee. It was not a little strange to be served by a white woman; to be served by Miss Juliet was downright surreal. I stuttered a thank-you. Betsy's coffee tasted fine to me. "Why did you allow Hendricks to lump you in with the field niggers?" the mistress asked.
"He struck me," I said. "He gave me no choice."
Miss Juliet grimaced. "I shall speak with him." She shook her head. "It must be hell to be a nigger."
I suspected this was a test of loyalty, so I remained silent.
"Sit by me, Scipio," Miss Juliet said.
"What?" I said.
"You heard me, boy. Come and sit."
Coffee in hand, I sat next to the mistress. She opened her Bible to the first page. "Do you know what those three words say?" she asked, pointing to a line of text.
"'In. The. Beginning,'" she said. "Look at 'In.' That first letter's an I. I. Say it."
"Next letter's an N, as in nigger. The two letters together make the word 'In.' Say it with me. I and N make 'In.'"
"I and N make 'In.'"
"Makes sense, don't it? Don't it sound right? Now, look at 'the.'"
Upstairs, Miss Emily yelped with joy, for Tom had taken his first steps.
I put the book down. My heart was heavy. Bill was strumming out a tune and singing softly:
"O I can't take up my musket
And fight em now no more
But I ain't gonna love em
And that is certain sure
And I don't want no pardon
For what I was and am
And I won't be reconstructed
And I don't care a damn..."
Oh Christ, I don't wanna die.
You ain't gonna die, sir.
I'm killed, Meeks, I'm shot clean through.
That's good, sir. That means the surgeons ain't gotta dig it out. Just keep still, will you?
Where's the colonel? Where're the rest of the boys?
Chargin up the hill, takin the fight to the Federals. We're gonna win this one, sir. We sure gave em hell yesterday. Didn't we?
Yeah, we did.
Lee and Longstreet know what they're about. They ain't gonna let us down. You hear me?
Oh hell! What was that?
Yankee twelve-pounder, sir. But we're safe. The rocks are gonna keep us safe.
You don't know that.
Yes I do.
We gotta get outta here.
Stay put, sir.
Dammit. I cannot move an inch. You oughta catch up with the outfit.
Thanks but no thanks.
You yellow, Meeks?
I wanna live is all.
You're yellow! Helpin me is just your pretense!
Hell yes I'm yellow. Now shut up.
Get out there and fight, you son of a bitch. That's an order, sergeant.
Christ. I'll take pot shots at em. Will that satisfy you?
If that's the most courage you can muster. Take my rifle.
There. I shot at em.
Did you bag a Yankee?
I ain't got no idea. Probably.
Keep shootin til you get one.
Jesus. Shit. Shit.
What's goin on up there?
Just a storm of lead is all. What'd you think?
Keep loadin and shootin.
Load and shoot, load and shoot, load and...
Hey. Hey! I think I got one! I bagged an officer! Ha ha! The bluebellies are all crowdin around him. Looked damned important. Hey, lieutenant! Lieu–
I woke up in a sweat. I'd dreamt about Devil's Den again. The dream always ended right before I heard the roar of the gun and saw that Yankee shell hurtling toward me, that shell which burrowed underground and exploded under me, a piece of which tore into my leg – that shell I carry around inside me each and every goddamn day.
It was an hour after dawn. I got up and shuffled to the common room. Bill was passed out drunk in his chair, holding his banjo in a limp grip. I poured myself a whisky.
Scipio's book was on the table where I left it. As I took it up I thought of Pandora, opening her box and letting all the evil out into the world. I opened the book from the back. The last sentence of the last page was: Draw your own conclusions. I flicked a clump of pages to the right. I read: They buried the dead beneath a large oak tree.
My breath caught in my throat. I flicked more pages to the right and saw: Powdersmoke filled the air. I flicked yet more and recognized my own words: Give my love to momma and especially to little Tom. A chapter began on the page previous. Scipio wrote:
Not long after, Miss Emily received a letter from her husband. The house was abuzz with excitement – even I was curious to hear tales of the war. Miss Emily read it aloud to Tom and Miss Juliet while Betsy and I waited on them. Marse Ephraim wrote that he had been grievously wounded on July 2nd in the Battle of Gettysburg, in the maze of boulders known as Devil's Den.
Little Tom coughed and asked, "Momma, what's Devil's Dead?"
"Not Devil's Dead, silly," Miss Emily replied. "Devil's Den. It's the place in Pennsylvania where the abolitionists hurt your daddy."
She continued reading.
Marse Ephraim stressed that he was safe and sound. Though he had lost a significant amount of blood, the wound did not fester, and he had rejoined the ranks of his regiment, hobbled but intact. As a consequence of his wound, however, he missed his chance to partake in the fabled "Pickett's Charge" of the following day, when General George Pickett's division of rebel infantry smashed themselves against the Federal defenses on Cemetery Ridge – though Marse Ephraim did not seem too downhearted about that.
"Bet your ass I wasn't," I said to myself.
He wrote that he heard the attack well enough from his sickbed. He was disappointed that the Confederates were unable to press on to Washington, and believed that but for Robert E. Lee's organizational acumen the entire army would have fallen apart in the retreat across the Potomac.
"I wish I could write more but I have heard the reveille and must make an end to this letter," the master wrote. "Give my love to momma and especially to little Tom. Forever yours, Ephraim."
When Miss Juliet and I were alone and at our lessons, she had me write a copy of the letter out as she dictated. It was the first time I had copied anything longer than a few verses of Scripture. It took me an hour but I copied the entire missive without help, a source of great pride for us both.
I began to hope against hope that Miss Juliet would realize how wasted I was as a slave and see fit to free me on her own initiative. How foolish I was to entertain this notion! Juliet Meeks was a good woman; she cared for me in her own way; but I underestimated how much she needed me. Loneliness crippled her toward the end, just as badly as the fever that would kill her. I was not merely her slave, but also her pupil and her constant companion.
Bill woke with a start. The banjo fell from his hands and clattered to the floor. A string snapped with a twang.
"Hell," he swore.
I put down the book. "Bad dream, Bill?"
He nodded, examining the broken string. "Appomattox."
Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia, tenth April eighteen sixty five – general order number nine: After four years of arduous service marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude, the Army of Northern Virginia has been compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources. I need not tell the survivors of so many hard fought battles, who have remained steadfast to the last, that I have consented to the result from no distrust of them. But feeling that valor and devotion could accomplish nothing that could compensate for the loss that must have attended the continuance of the contest, I have determined to avoid the useless sacrifice of those whose past services have endeared them to their countrymen. By the terms of the agreement, officers and men can return to their homes and remain until exchanged. You will take with you the satisfaction that proceeds from the consciousness of duty faithfully performed, and I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you his blessing and protection. With an unceasing admiration of your constancy and devotion to your country, and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous consideration for myself, I bid you an affectionate farewell. Signed, R.E. Lee, General commanding.
We yieldin up our arms then?
And swearin loyalty to the Union?
I reckon we are.
Hell. Grant can have my rifle if he wants it – it's just a hunk of wood and iron. But he ain't gettin my allegiance. No way, no how.
Oaths are just words, Bill. You can say the words, can't you? It don't make em right. Cross your fingers behind your back if you have to. You can say the words and it won't change a thing.
We took an oath, Ephraim, an oath to the Confederate States of America. I consider it still bindin.
General Lee says different.
Lee mighta given up on the cause, but I sure as hell ain't.
I don't know what to tell you. I'm sick of hardtack and salt horse. I'm sick of Virginia. I'm sick of this war and I wanna go home. Don't weep, Bill. It's outta our hands now.
I wish I was dead.
But you ain't, and now you gotta make the best of it. I'm gettin in line. You comin?
I reckon so.
The following Monday I rode to the train station early and boarded the 9:25 bound for Christiansburg, Virginia. My only luggage was Scipio's book. My car was empty save for an old widow and a pair of traveling salesmen. I watched the country roll past and drank Irish coffee. The sun caught the Blue Ridge beautifully. I spent the night in Christiansburg and caught the 7:50 to Lexington the next morning.
I slept in an old inn on the south side of town. "Here to pay your respects to General Jackson, Johnny?" asked the colored girl who brought me my steak at supper. "He's buried in the boneyard smack dab in the middle of town."
I shook my head. "Just passin through."
The next day I took the 8:20 to Front Royal. I read all day. The morning after that I boarded the 10:00 to Washington, D.C.
During the last winter of the war, Scipio wrote, multiple calamities befell the Meeks household. The troubles began with a profound sense of deja vu. One morning Hendricks woke us with the shrill scream of his whistle. We rousted ourselves and gathered outside our quarters, but someone was unaccounted for.
"Where's George?" Hendricks roared. "Drunk, I'd wager." I knew then something was wrong – George hadn't had a drop to drink in two years. "I done warned you, nigger. Get up, get up and take your whoopin!" The overseer stormed into our hut and found George shivering in his cot, afflicted with a terrible fever. He was covered in blisters and sweat, and he breathed in labored gasps.
The sickness soon spread to the other Negroes, and I took ill. I was afflicted for ten days. I was in such discomfort that I could neither work nor eat nor sleep. In the throes of delirium, I suffered from waking nightmares and imagined I was a boy again, back at the Phipps plantation in Georgia.
Everyone knew that the Confederacy's days were numbered, and I thought it would be a cruel irony indeed if I ended before slavery did. I was on the verge of death – until one morning, I felt strength return to my weary bones. Soon my appetite was back, and I emerged from the fever fully recovered.
George had died whilst I was insensible. I wish I could have sung a spiritual as they piled the earth atop his grave. I could but visit his resting place and offer a silent prayer after the fact.
Next, Jim Hendricks and Miss Juliet fell ill. Hendricks continued to terrorize us, but the mistress grew too sick to rise from bed. Miss Emily ordered me to wait upon her because my constitution had proved a match for the malady. I fed the sick old woman broth and administered curative brandy thrice a day, but she vomited all the victuals I gave her. Her condition continued to decline.
One overcast day late in March, the Yankees arrived. A troop of advance cavalry, numbered about two dozen, rode up the road and dismounted in the yard – I watched them approach through the upstairs window of Miss Juliet's chamber. How my heart leapt when I saw those beautiful, dusty, ragged blue coats! At last, I thought. At last the harbingers of freedom have come!
I bounded down the stairs and called for Betsy. She was in the parlor, watching Tom, who scuttled about playing with a wooden rifle. Betsy looked up in alarm as I ran to her. "Don't be afraid. The Lincoln soldiers are come. We are free!"
I embraced her bodily and led her to the window. When she saw the Northerners she burst into tears. "I thought the day would never come," she kept saying. "I thought the day would never come."
Our joy was soon tempered. Hendricks burst from the cellar, pale and feverish, an old flintlock in the crook of his arm. He limped outside. When they saw him, the Yankees drew their pistols. "Lower your musket, citizen," the captain of the troop, a squat, yellow-bearded fellow, called. "You have my word no harm will come to you."
Hendricks spat. "The word of a Lincolnite ain't worth nothin to me. How about you clear off this land afore things get ugly?"
Tom poked his toy rifle at the window and said, "Bang! Bang!"
"Tom!" hissed Miss Emily. "Tom, get away from there!"
The captain and his men edged closer to the house. "We have orders to sequester this property for use as divisional headquarters," the captain said. "We are not here to pillage and raid."
"Lyin bluebelly," Hendricks said, and fired.
I have oft wondered what Hendricks was thinking in that moment. He must have known his position was hopeless. Perhaps the fever had divorced his judgment from his senses, or perhaps he preferred to die fighting. Whatever his thoughts, they were his last. His musketball thudded harmlessly into the ground three yards from the troopers, but the Yankees were far better shots. They raised their pistols and assailed the overseer with a punishing hail of lead. I dropped to the floor, dragging Betsy down with me. The windows shattered and minié balls smacked through the wall and zipped over our heads. Tom screamed. Shards of glass rained upon Betsy and I. Powdersmoke filled the air. The room grew rank with a smell like burnt copper.
The firefight lasted about three seconds. When the smoke cleared I dared peek out the hole in the wall where the window had been. The Yankees were gathering on the porch. Past them I made out Hendricks' carcass, riddled with bloody bullet-holes from shin to crown.
Betsy tugged upon my sleeve. She pointed to the other side of the room, where I was presented with a sight that pains me to think on, let alone write of in detail.
Miss Emily was dead. Her head was split open and her brains stained the floral wallpaper. Little Tom was in her arms. She had tried to shield him in the last instant, to no avail. Two bullets had pierced the boy's chest. He lay as still and lifeless as his mother. His small grey eyes were open, staring at nothing. The toy rifle was spattered with blood.
The captain was the first trooper to enter the house. When he saw what he had done he clamped his hand unto his mouth and wept. An older cavalryman, a sergeant, was unfazed by the unholy spectacle. He nodded toward Betsy and I. "Shall we see to the contraband, sir?"
The captain did not reply. He could neither cease sobbing nor look away.
The sergeant knelt by us anyway. "How many darkies reside on this plantation?" he asked.
Betsy answered him. "There's a whole bunch of us. The field niggers are out back. Y'all gonna take us with you? Take us to the North?"
The sergeant let out a cynical little huff. "Do me a favor and round up the rest of the darkies. Then you can count yourself a free woman."
Betsy did not need to be told twice. She ran outdoors to tell the other Negroes the good news.
"Sir," I said to the sergeant, "there be somebody else in the house. Upstairs. The little boy's mamaw, she's... well, she's powerful sick. May I see to her before you give us our free papers?"
The sergeant squinted at me. "Are you to be trusted?"
"Yes, sir," I replied. "I ain't that kind of nigger."
He nodded. "Meet me in the yard in five minutes."
"I will." I rose and mounted the stairs. My emotions were at war. I could hardly believe that in just five minutes, I would be an American citizen. "All men are created equal," Jefferson wrote. In three hundred seconds, that maxim would transform from a farce to a reality, at least for me. I had waited for this moment my entire life – but every time I blinked, I saw the staring grey eyes of a dead boy imprinted inside my eyelids; ever staring, staring until the end of time.
I walked to Miss Juliet's chamber and gently opened the door. Her eyes were open. "Ephraim?" she called to me. Delirium had taken her. "Ephraim, what did I tell you about shootin so close to the house? Did you break anythin? Ephraim? Where are you, dear?" She held out a thin and quavering hand.
What was I to do? This woman had held me against my will, stood by with indifference whilst her son whipped me and laughed; but did not Christ tell us to love our enemies?
I took her hand into my own.
She smiled. "Aw, there y'are, my boy. My darlin boy."
That day, I gained my freedom. A Northern general called Eliot came to the house with his staff officers and made his lodgings in the master bedroom. I made myself useful and as a reward General Eliot saw to my deportment.
Miss Juliet passed three days later. The Yankees built four coffins from the floorboards of the slave quarters upon which I had laid my head for eight years. They buried the dead beneath a large oak tree.
"You doing all right, mister?" the little boy in the seat ahead of me asked.
I wiped my eyes with my sleeve and tried to will myself to stop shaking. I could read no more.
"Don't talk to strangers, dearie," his mother said and bid him turn about.
"District of Columbia!" the porter shouted as the train ground to a halt. "District of Columbia!"
It was six o'clock. I had an hour to get to the theater.
Our speaker tonight needs no introduction, but perhaps he will grant me the indulgence. He is the embodiment of the American dream – a young man who, through his own merit, rose from nothing to become one of the greatest authors and orators of our time. He has fearlessly shared the unspeakable ordeals of his boyhood with the world. He has lectured across the northeast, exposing the terrible truth of that peculiar institution which for too long soiled the integrity of a free people. He has spoken out for the right of the Negro to live in the pursuit of happiness. He is a credit to his race and I am proud to call him my friend. Please join me in welcoming to the stage our guest of honor: Mr. Scipio Eliot.
Thank you, professor. Thank you, all. I address you tonight not as a Negro, nor as an American, but as a fellow child of God, a member of that larger creed known as Mankind. None of you would allow yourself or those you love to be mistreated or maligned if it was within your power to stop it. Your personal honor would prevent you from submission to such suffering and humiliation. Imagine a situation where that power were denied to you. Now imagine that power denied to you twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty five days a year, and you will have some vague notion of what it is like to be a slave. As you may know, for the first seventeen or eighteen years of my life, I languished in bondage in the cotton states. I apologize that I cannot be more specific, but I am unsure of my age. There is no record of my birth. In the 1850 and 1860 censuses I appear as a number beneath the names of my owners at those times, Reginald Phipps and Ephraim Meeks, respect–
Yes – uh, forgive me. Lost my place. Respectively. The government of the United States did not consider me human, except in regard to taxation; when commerce became central to the national conversation, Congress generously legislated that I was three-fifths of a feeling, thinking man...
I waited outside the theater door, sucking on a cigar I borrowed from a dandy in a hurry. Everybody in this big city was a dandy in a hurry. They spoke loud and fast, and the men all stank of lady's perfume. I tried to imagine marching down these cobblestone streets with my regiment as a conqueror, but couldn't quite picture it.
Scipio emerged from the theater, surrounded by a gaggle of admirers complimenting him on his skillful oration. He smiled and thanked them and shook their soft pasty hands. He wore a tailored red frock coat and gold-rimmed spectacles. After a minute, he caught sight of me out of the corner of his eye. I stared right back at him. He thanked the gaggle again and asked them to excuse him for a moment.
He approached me with his hands in his pockets. "I saw you in the crowd," he said. "Are you here to kill me?"
"If I were," I said, "you'd be dead. Look at you. All growed up." I held up his book. "The picture don't do you justice."
"You look terrible."
"I've had a rough time these past several years. Not like you, boy. You been –"
"Do not call me boy," Scipio snapped. "I ain't your boy no more."
"All right," I conceded, "all right. You ain't."
"What the hell you doing here, Meeks?"
"I ain't sure, to be honest. Can I ask you a question?"
Scipio looked back to where his friends waited. He sighed. "Ask away."
"Whilst momma lay dyin... did you... did you tell her about Tom? And Emily?"
"Of course not," Scipio said. "She didn't even know where she was, at the end. I never let the Yankees into her chamber and I didn't tell her a thing. It would have been cruel, and worse, it would have been pointless."
"That's good. You did real good." My cheeks were wet. The tears were flowing freely – there was no stopping them. "Imagine her surprise when she got to Heaven and found em there waitin for her," I said. "They're together now, all happy. You think they're happy up there, Scipio? All together and happy?"
Scipio betrayed no feeling, not even pity, when he said, "They loved you. You don't need me to tell you that."
I broke down and started in bawling. Scipio took his hand out of his pocket, and for a moment I thought he would place it upon my shoulder – but he pushed his spectacles up his nose and said: "I've got to go, Meeks." He hesitated. "The war chewed you up pretty good, didn't it?"
I sniffled and looked him in the eye. "Draw your own conclusions."