01 - 06

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 6

01 - 06

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  • زمان مطالعه 12 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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6

AND SO BEGAN my strange second life.

In the mornings Titch and I would examine the previous day’s labours, recording minute calculations, marked at first by Titch and—gradually, increasingly as the weeks passed—by me also, though very crudely. In the afternoons we walked the outer wilds of the plantation examining the flora, and then he would send me home to clean and cook, while he continued alone an hour or so more. Then, in the evenings, I would stutter and flush and mumble pitifully through the words of a simple book, while Titch sat irritably by, sounding them out.

I came to dread those evenings; but the morning’s labours were strange, wondrous. We collected rainwater in barrels to test the acidity, caught eels in those selfsame barrels to measure their electricity; plucked green-backed beetles from the pasture’s dungheaps to drop into cloudy bottles of serum. Titch baffled me. Never had I seen a mind so afire. In the field he was all eyes, all nose, all knifelike fingers plunging into dirt. He would come away black-tongued, his teeth tinged green from tasting grass and soil. He scampered along ledges, climbed halfway up peeling trees, once walked full-clothed into the ocean to snatch up a rare crab, his shirt ballooning out in the tide. And at each new discovery his eyes would narrow to slits. One afternoon he told me to open my palm, and onto it he dropped a minuscule blue lizard, its heart pulsing through its sides, a bright spot of life in my fist.

He did not ever mistreat me. But it was no kindness; for I knew this must all end, that I would be returned to the cane fields and their brutality someday. And so I did not allow myself to grow comfortable, but instead scrambled after thermometers tossed in the grass, gathered his dropped scopes, carefully folded leaves into the long wooden box he called his vasculum, feeling each evening only relief that I had not been punished.

What he thought of his brother’s punishments of the other slaves, he never said. He sometimes stood peering out at the distant cane, watching the machetes flashing against the blue of the sky, his face tired but his eyes tense. If what he saw troubled him, he never spoke of it, would simply return to gathering specimens or making calculations. Only once did he venture any comment to me. We were passing through the field’s western edge when an overseer struck the field hand Mary sharply in the face with a rusted prod. It was as though a breeze had passed over her cheek, so still did she hold her body as the blood leaked from her mouth. Titch took this in with tight eyes, staring a long while. I stared too, filling with a slow, remembered sense of panic. Then in a voice so quiet I could scarcely hear it, he said, “My god.”

That evening, when the master came to take a port with him, I could hear their voices rising sharply from behind the doors of the study. I stood quietly some distance away, waiting to be summoned. Their voices were vicious and hissing, and I could hear the master complaining of a lack of understanding in his brother. Then all fell silent. The doors opened and, listing slightly, his eyes furious, the master went away.

— IF TITCH KEPT one store in plenty in his lodgings, it was paper. He was a kind of maniacal proprietor of papers, and would return from Bridge Town some afternoons with large crates packed full of it. And so, there being no short supply, he provided me a new ream each week, and a fine black drawing lead, and instructed me to practise my letters. I would retire to my room, my stub of a candle burning down, and in the vague orange pool of light I began, then, to draw.

I felt something vital, some calming thing, go through me as I worked. Almost from the first it seemed a wonder to me, less an act of the fingers than of the eyes. I drew whatever I had at hand, and studied the ways shadows created a sense of weight, working without method or training. And yet I was careful to roll the finished drawing into a narrow cone each night, and to hold it over the flame, that it might burn down to ash. For I feared to think what my master might do, to learn of my disobedience.

But no secret can be kept for long. It is one of the truths of this world.

One evening Titch intruded upon my labours just as I was holding a page to the candle flame. Frowning irritably, he asked, “Why do you waste that paper, Washington? Your letters cannot be so wretched as that. Let me see.”

My heart was in a twist. Titch, with his sunburnt face, his hawkish nose peeling, slowly opened my soft fist. I did not resist him. And there it was: the sunlight-speckled wings of a butterfly we had observed earlier that day.

Titch stared at the picture.

“I sorry, Titch, sir,” I mumbled, terrified.

Titch did not look at me.

“Cassius blue,” he said quietly. “But did you really draw this, Washington? God alive. Rarely have I seen nature so faithfully rendered.” He peered down at me, looking almost stricken. “You are a prodigy, truly.”

My face flushed with heat, and I looked quickly away.

The following afternoon, as we set out into the canopy of trees to examine a small wooden cage he had built for snails, he paused and drew me up short. He reached into his burlap satchel and fetched the packet of drawing leads, the carefully bound illustration boards. “I nearly forgot,” he said, with deep seriousness in his voice. “Here is the lot. Do not break them. You will be the chief illustrator from now on. Be faithful to what you see, Washington, and not to what you are supposed to see. Do you understand me?”

The hot rim of the bucket I sat on was biting into my thighs, and I stood, nodding—though I did not comprehend the full weight of his meaning in those days.

Later that evening we retired to the verandah, the fading light beyond the railing softening the green of the fields. Titch had brought with him a stack of several volumes. “What do we feel like this evening? The History and Practice of Aerostation? The Airopaedia? Physische Geographie? I have a few here on marine zoology, if you care to read about aquatic animals. And here are two novels. What about Rabelais, this one—this one is downright ghastly. Yes, this, let us read this.”

I had the sense, as I often did, that he was speaking to himself and not to me, and so I did not answer. He pulled two chairs close together, setting a finger-smudged goblet of claret on his side table and a glass of mango juice on mine. He placed into my outstretched hand the dreaded Rabelais.

How little sense those words made to me. I hated those sessions. But I will never forget the feeling of paper in my hands those first months, rough, an unfamiliar thing, like compressed dust. The wonder of it. I would finger the pages, and out would come an abrupt, medicinal smell, like a package from an apothecary’s.

On that evening, Titch settled down facing me, reading the letters upside down. “What does this say? We saw this word only yesterday.”

I stared wretchedly at the page, its tiny black letters like the awful hothouse nurse’s stitches.

“Only try,” said he.

I looked at the black blobs, I cast my mind back. “Es-try,” said I.

“Nearly, nearly. Only slow it down. Es-tu-a-ry.”

“Es-tu-a-ry.”

He sat swiftly back, a pleased frown on his face. “How you have surprised me these last weeks, Washington. Your mind. I had not expected it.”

It did not then occur to me to question why he had chosen me, if he did not believe me capable of learning; instead I heard only the praise, and I found the edge falling off my fear, so that I could finally hear his questions for what they were, inquiries only, and sometimes I could even answer without stammering.

It was not to last. Titch closed the book over his hand to mark the page and sat with a dim frown on his face. “Who was that large serving woman at dinner with you, that night I first had you called in? I cannot recall her name.”

I paused, suddenly wary.

“Come now,” he said sternly. “You must know her name. The big woman. The one with the broken nose. The two of you were very familiar, I watched you both all night.”

“Kit,” I finally murmured. “Big Kit.”

“Big Kit. And who is she to you?”

“Sir?” I said, flustered.

“She is your friend, is she not?”

I paused, my face hot. The weeks had passed, and still I’d had no covert words from her, no quiet message through the master’s house slaves when they came on their errands, nor from the field hands when I passed them in the long, cool grasses. I felt abandoned by her, cut cold, and I was both wounded and desperately embarrassed.

“Yes, sir, my friend,” I said finally, furrowing my brow. “She like what a mother would be, had I one.”

There was a pause. “You must miss her.”

I kept my gaze on my lap.

“Well. Well.” He cleared his throat decisively, giving me time to collect myself. Then he opened the book again. “What are our lives but a series of farewells and returns, no? Now. Sound this one out, this here. Good.”

— DID I MISS Big Kit, did I feel her absence keenly, did I lament my loss of her?

When I closed my eyes, what I felt was the cool weight of her hand on my face in the darkness. The thumbnail on her left hand was yellow and cracked like a seashell, and she had a habit of curling that thumb in against her palm, so that it scratched against my cheek. Her voice was low and throaty, and she had the strange West African manner of lowering her tone at the ends of her sentences, as if she were reaching some fine and wise truth. She would clear her throat between bites as we ate, and there were those who hated this, but I laughed at it when I was very little. She would always hold out the last scoop of her breakfast to me and I would eat it from her hand, like a tamed creature. This would make her grin. She was earthy and powerful and would relieve herself before me without embarrassment. She cut her hair very short with a dulled knife. Her ears were misshapen from years of heavy ornaments in Dahomey. She bore seven scars on her abdomen from seven different spears. There was a gap between her two front teeth that the air whistled through when she laughed. But she did not often laugh. What I knew was that a day would come when she would no longer stand to be enslaved, and on that day she would slaughter many before she carried me off to freedom.

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