02 - 04کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 16
02 - 04
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“COME IN, come in. I orient the graves towards the east, towards Jerusalem,” he was saying, “that they may welcome the Resurrection.” He shut the door of his living quarters with a sudden bang, locked it. The room felt dim, cold. I thought I could smell the wet soil on his palms, under his fingernails. Behind this, in a kind of green haze of scent, lay something sour and sharp, like a vat of pickling juice or vinegar left out too long. I wrinkled my nose. “Of course it is all nonsense, Mister Wilde, all superstition and foolishness,” the s@xton was saying. “Still, it keeps the parishioners satisfied. It would not do for them to find me wanting, and start asking questions.”
He paused beside the little black stove and, retrieving a small piece of firewood, turned to me with a dark look. “Now, who is this you have brought me?”
“George Washington Black,” said Titch, “lately of Faith Plantation.”
“And a boy who can keep his tongue, I trust?”
“That he is. I’d stake my life on it.”
I glanced sharply at Titch, surprised he would so easily reveal our particulars to this stranger. As if the gravity of the broadsheet had not yet sunk in.
“Do not be so hasty, Mister Wilde, to stake your life on anything. It is a lesson I have learned through much trial and error.” The s@xton made a curious clicking noise with his tongue, twice, and then turned on his boot heel and crossed to the far side of the room. “This, gentlemen, is where I sleep and eat and ablute. That door there leads to my offices, where I conduct my studies. Through that passage is the church. And this door, gentlemen,” he said, stamping twice with his heavy boot, “leads to the cellar.”
“We appreciate your allowing us to stay, sir,” said Titch. “It is a fine, honest house.”
Mister Edgar took a step towards me. “Mister Wilde has no doubt told you I am a man of solitary habits, and peculiar.”
I hesitated. “He has said you study the dead, sir. That is all.”
Mister Edgar raised his eyebrows at Titch.
“The boy has eyes in his head,” Titch said, allowing himself a smile. “This he would certainly have discerned for himself.”
The s@xton studied me; again he clicked his tongue twice. “The boy, yes,” he said in his soft voice. “I do not much care for childhood. It is a state of terrible vulnerability, and is therefore unnatural and incompatible with human life. Everyone will cut you, strike you, cheat you, everyone will offer you suffering when goodness should reign. And because children can do nothing for themselves, they need good advocates, good parents. But a good parent is as rare as snow in summer, I am afraid. Well.” He smiled sadly. “It is possible I have some prejudices in this respect.”
“You are an orphan yourself, are you not?” offered Titch.
A shadow played across the s@xton’s face, darkened his wide, pale forehead. We were still standing just inside the doorway, awaiting some further invitation that was not extended. My glance drifted to a darkening yellow square of muslin nailed over the lone window. Dusk was already descending outside.
“Sometimes,” Mister Edgar continued, “when there is a baptism, I will stand in the nave and look upon the babe’s face at a distance. I almost cannot bear it: the soft skin, the tenderness, the eyes so guileless and trusting. I would almost wish the innocent to be stricken at once, there, in God’s house. To keep such purity intact. From the arms of God to the arms of God.”
Titch was looking at the man with a curious expression. “Well,” he said at last. And then nothing more.
Mister Edgar smiled slowly. “But why do we stand here? You are my honoured guests this night. I shall fetch you some bedding. Come in, come. The two of you will sleep here, if that suits.”
He left us with the candle and walked to the trap door to the cellar. Hauling on a large iron ring set into the floor, he disappeared down into the darkness. I was surprised that he had not taken a light with him. We could hear the distant clank and shirr of objects being moved in the earth below us.
Titch had taken up the candle and he held it high, turning slowly to survey the room. He did not speak. He went through the narrow door to the s@xton’s office and I followed. The strange pickled smell grew stronger.
And then, from around Titch’s left shoulder, in the candlelight, I saw it. A tall brass washbasin, with curving sides in the French style, and lying inside it in a bed of dark water was the thin, elongated form of a human arm. It was white as mould, with greyish veins running the surface, and a string had been tied to the wrist to elevate it. The hand was small, a woman’s hand, and in the candlelight it appeared very white and bulbous, the flesh swelling. I saw that the thumb had been opened, and some metallic object had been inserted into the cavity.
“What is this?” I whispered. “Dear god.”
“It appears,” said Titch softly, “to be a severed arm.”
I swore; I shook my head in disgust. “But where is the rest of her?”
“We shall not stay long.” Titch had already turned and was leaving the office. He set the candle down where it had been before, at the edge of the small pier table beside the front entrance.
“Must we stay at all?” I said. “Titch?”
“He is a madman. His faculties have been damaged.”
“I had said he made a study of the dead. This I did tell you.”
“You have brought us to the house of a lunatic.”
“Hush,” Titch hissed again.
“It is not right,” I protested. “Look at what he has done. I would rather risk meeting your Mister Willard in the city than stay in this abominable place.”
“He is not my Mister Willard,” said Titch.
But just then Mister Edgar materialized, his face pale in the shadows, his eyes black and unreadable. “My gentle friends,” he said in his low voice. I felt my heart tremble; I did not know how much he had heard, how long he had been there. “Let us settle you in and then we shall feast.”
— IT WAS A FINE, simple dinner of potatoes and string beans, along with our salted ham. I watched Mister Edgar with a quiet gaze, trying to determine the nature of the man. But Titch vouched for this s@xton, and so I did not allow myself free suspicion.
Mister Edgar cut at his pork with great energy, then stabbed the cube of meat and started to chew. “I knew you were coming, Mister Wilde,” he said around his bites. “During my morning prayers I had the sense. Or rather I felt it, sir, God infused the knowledge into my flesh.” He smiled, chewed, smiled. “I did not foresee the ham, though.”
“Our host has made a study of the flesh, Wash,” Titch said to me. “He speaks of it as if it carries knowledge.”
“Because it does,” Mister Edgar said quickly. “Why, I could speak at length about you and your habits and your very life history, boy, through a cursory study of the markings on your body. Our bodies know truths our minds neglect.” He squinted his eyes powerfully. “You were clearly burnt by a sudden eruption of fire, a spontaneous explosion. One can see by the feathering at your earlobe that you made a turning motion at the very moment of incandescence.” He turned suddenly to Titch. “And you, Mister Wilde, that scar about your mouth.”
Titch paused, looking uneasy.
“It was clearly caused in boyhood, between the ages of four and six,” Mister Edgar continued. “A very thick wire, of tempered iron likely, was pressed into your mouth and yanked back, like so.” He raised his thin, pale hands at either cheek and drew them sharply back. “You were dragged about in that fashion some two, three minutes before the wire was finally removed from your gullet. Much damage had been done to the epidermis, the basement membrane and the dermis, but the subcutaneous tissue remained mercifully intact.”
I could see the orange light of the lantern reflected in Mister Edgar’s eyes; he stared at me a long, thoughtful moment. His chair creaked.
“Remarkable,” Titch said, though he did not sound at all impressed. Then, very abruptly, he cleared his throat, and began to speak of our adventures. He described the storm, and the plummet of the Cloud-cutter onto the deck of the Ave Maria. His mention of this ship’s name was a shock; in my alarm I did not look at him. Only when he began to talk of his cousin’s death and the bounty on my head did I turn to him in quiet horror.
Setting down his fork, Titch slipped the broadsheet from his pocket and flattened it across the grease-stained tablecloth. Mister Edgar scrutinized it with his large black eyes.
“Willard,” Mister Edgar murmured, shaking his head. “How will I know him, if he turns up?”
“He has blond hair, and wire spectacles. His eyes are very large, and very blue.” Titch paused, thinking. “He parts his hair very severely, so that it appears almost painful. And one of his eyes doesn’t focus right, it lists all about, and is very disarming.”
Mister Edgar took this in with great attention. “I daresay it would be a long way to travel for one black boy.”
“I imagine it would be made very much worth his while.”
Mister Edgar frowned. “I trust no one knows you are here.”
“I did mention it to the captain of the Ave Maria that we would seek out a scientific colleague just beyond the city. The particulars I did not offer.”
“I fear your stay in Virginia will be short, then.”
“Yes.” Some unspoken suggestion passed between them, something I could not discern the meaning of. I felt suddenly frightened again, agitated.
“The plantation is your father’s, is it not?” said Mister Edgar.
“It came down through my mother’s line, from her brother to mine.”
“Even so, you might alert your father to what is happening. Perhaps he might intervene.”
Titch looked weary, his forehead lined and heavy in the amber light. “You have not heard, then. My father passed away. Some eight months ago.”
Mister Edgar made a curious face. “Passed away?”
“In the Arctic. His assistant wrote to my mother. My cousin Philip came to Faith to deliver the news.”
Mister Edgar sat twining and untwining his long fingers on the table, his eyes glassy, unnerving. He stood abruptly from his seat and crossed the small room, returning with a dog-eared ivory envelope on which his name had been penned in a fine hand. This he set before Titch.
Frowning, Titch slid the papers from the envelope and began to read. I stared silently across at Mister Edgar, at the crooked set of his lips. He did not appear to be smiling, exactly; there was a kind of unhappy mirth to his features, like someone greeting a long-unseen aunt at a funeral.
The blood had left Titch’s face. He looked up slowly. “Perhaps this is Peter’s hand. His assistant.” He sounded almost irritated. “Was it not very similar, their penmanship?”
Mister Edgar took the pages from Titch, flipping through them with his long, bony hands, then parting them in half. In silence he set the two thin stacks side by side on the table. “Here you have your father’s letter, on the left. And here you see the one written by his assistant Peter House, mailed alongside your father’s.”
Leaning into the orange candlelight, we brooded over them. The cursive was markedly different; the one by Peter House was tighter, blunter, harsher, leaning fiercely to the right as though in the onslaught of a strong wind. Titch ran a finger along the blue trace of ink.
“But as you say,” Mister Edgar allowed, “perhaps your father’s was written well before his death, and House only posted both much later.”
Titch was staring at his father’s letter with a grimness about his mouth, chewing at the inside of his cheek. “The penultimate paragraph,” he muttered, sounding dispirited. “He references my having been nearly a year at Faith.” He raised his face, aggrieved. “This is very recent, sir.”
“I have no explanation,” Mister Edgar said softly. “But as men of science I am certain we can ferret it out.”
Titch kept passing his hands through his hair, a deflated expression on his face. How painful all this was proving to him; he was in total bewilderment. It was obvious the death of his father had crushed him, and now the possibility of that father living still was crushing him. It strained his wildest hopes, opened up the wounds of his grief.
When I placed my hand on his shoulder, he smiled tiredly.
“Let us leave it all for tomorrow,” said he. “Perhaps there is more sense to be made by daylight.”
“Indeed,” said Mister Edgar.
With a great sigh Titch rose from his creaking seat. The impossible occurs so infrequently in this world, even to those who would devote their lives to studying it. But anyone could see: he ached to believe.
— AFTER WE HAD washed up, dragged the table to one side and upended it, Titch and I set out our bedding before the fire. We then drew the makeshift curtain between our side of the room and the s@xton’s, effectively cutting ourselves off from the door to the outside. For we were in the back half of the room, with the cellar trap door in the corner, and I could not help but notice Titch’s uneasiness as he lay down his head.
I could hear Mister Edgar breathing and clicking his tongue as he moved about on the other side of the curtain, drifting in and out of the small room where the lady’s arm was being dissected.
“Do you suppose he truly is alive?” I whispered.
Titch rolled over. He said nothing.
“Perhaps you might write to his assistant, Mister House. Surely he can clarify everything?”
“Let us speak of all this tomorrow, Wash. It is late.”
Despite his agitation Titch fell at once into slumber. I myself could not sleep. I confess the strange figure of Mister Edgar Farrow left me feeling wary and afraid.
More troubling for myself, even beyond the unsettling idea of Titch’s father surviving his own icy death, was the person of John Francis Willard. Who was he? Though a child, I did not picture a monster—he was no creature all teeth, all vicious blue eyes behind mangled wire spectacles; his voice was not slow and reptilian, his hands not huge black claws. I knew the nature of evil; I knew its benign, easy face. He would be a man, simply. And it was his very anonymity that would make it impossible to see him coming. When I tried to set it from my mind, to close my eyes, I saw his pale, expressionless face looming, and I did not want to live past this night.
I must have dropped off then, for I opened my eyes onto blackness, my breath ragged in my ears, the air now so cold I could almost see it in the darkness. It must have been sometime past midnight, for the fire had burned down to nothing.
What had awoken me? The cold?
But then I heard it, again: a rattling sound, like the loose handle on a metal bucket. That is what it sounded like: metal clattering against metal. I wrenched myself upright, listening.
Someone was there, breathing in the dark.
I reached across to shake Titch awake, but my fingers met only empty bedclothes.
“Who is there?” I hissed. “Mister Edgar?”
There was the creak of a hinge, and the click of a glass door shutting in a lantern, and then a weak orange light spilled across the floor. It was held aloft by the s@xton. In his other hand he carried a shovel, blade up. He was dressed warmly in a wool coat.
“Did I frighten you, boy?” he whispered. “Do not be alarmed.”
“Where is Titch?” I pleaded. “Where is Mister Wilde?”
“Come,” said Mister Edgar. “I will take you to him.”
You will find it astonishing that I rose that night and went with him outside, into the cold air, to walk in the darkness among the gravestones. I find it strange, myself. For I was yet but a child, and half this man’s size, and no part of me did trust him.
He led me to the edge of the opened grave. There he unshuttered his lantern, and in the sudden slant of light I saw a small wooden ladder standing upright in the grave. At the back end of the grave a square of earth had been scraped clear, and the rough wooden top of a box—a coffin—was visible.
“It is quite all right, boy,” the s@xton said softly. “Your Mister Wilde is down there, if you care to join him.”
I backed away, alarmed. I did not take my eyes from the man.
He smiled, a toothless black smile in the light of the lantern. “Oh, it is not a grave, child,” he called to me. “It is a doorway and a passage. It is the way to the future. Do not be frightened. We all must descend before we may arise.”
“Where is Titch?” My voice sounded small and tremulous, even to my ear.
But the s@xton had already turned and was climbing stiffly down into the grave, the lantern swinging in his fist. When he had vanished entirely, all I could discern was a low orange glow rising from the earth where he had gone. I felt the darkness press in around me. The light in the grave dimmed.
“Mister Edgar?” I called, uneasy.
After a moment I crunched through the grass, until I reached the edge of the grave. I peered in.
The grave was empty.
— THE s@xTON HAD quite disappeared. But as I looked closer, I understood that what I had mistaken for the boards of a coffin had been lifted clear and dragged aside, and now stood leaning against the wall of the grave; for they formed a lid of some kind. I saw the top of a second ladder within the hole, extending into the earth. The orange glow of the s@xton’s lantern shone weakly from the shadow, as though he had entered that small hole and was even now moving away from me.
I did not call out again. I went quickly down the ladder and kneeled at the edge of the tunnel, lowering my face upside down. I could see very little. The second ladder stretched down a narrow earthen drop, and I could just make out the opening of a low passageway. The air was cold and sour, and I pulled the front of my shirt up over my mouth as I went down into it.
I paused at the base of the ladder. I could hear voices, though I could not discern what they were saying. The tunnel was square-cut, the soil surrounding it black and moist. I went doubled over into that passage with my knees out before me, cautious.
I had not gone ten paces when I reached a large rock. I climbed over it, and found myself crouching in a bright pool of lantern light.
“Is that you, finally?” said a voice.
It was Titch.
The space was low, too low for standing—a long, narrow chamber dug out of the earth and shored up with timber on the sides and across the ceiling. The floor too was built of boards, and looked dry enough. Seated at the far end with the lantern between them were Titch and Mister Edgar, and two runaway slaves.
I knew what they were at once. You will wonder how I knew them with such certainty. But what sort of mistake can a boy make who has lived his life among such people, and never dared dream of freedom himself, but heard the rumours, the whispers, the mutters at night of escapes? I knew them by the whites of their eyes and the tremble in their fingers; I knew them by the stillness of their shoulders, as if their very breath did not belong to them.
“Come, Wash, come closer,” Titch said quietly, waving me close. “We have much to discuss and little time to discuss it.”
Frowning, I crept slowly forward. There was a slop bucket in one corner and the smell coming off it was foul. I saw two satchels and a roll of bedding against the far wall. I saw the way the two runaways looked at me, suspicion and pity intermingled. And though I felt strangely ashamed, I stared boldly back at them, powerful men both, with thick necks and scabbed knuckles.
“They are leaving tomorrow night,” said Titch quietly, seeing my gaze. “This is Adam, and this Ezekiel.”
The two runaways said nothing. Ezekiel was shorter and thinner, with tired, kind eyes; his companion had about him a rougher look, as though a nasty hand had only ever been offered to him. He stared at me with a hardened expression. I did not speak. I looked now questioningly at Titch, now at Mister Edgar.
“They will be in the north before the month’s end, Wash,” Titch continued. “Free men. Men with their lives ahead of them. They will be in Upper Canada, and that will make them British subjects.”
“Well,” the s@xton said, “not exactly. Rather, an act was passed some years ago—any enslaved person who reaches Upper Canada will be freed upon his arrival.”
“You are a smuggler,” said I. I had heard the stories on Faith Plantation of a certain distillery in Bridge Town, the rumours that the barrels contained more than just rum. We had given it little credence. Big Kit would snort and laugh and scowl. “Oh, them white folk is just so eager to help they poor black property out this life, I don’t doubt it,” she’d say with a twist of her mouth.
Titch leaned forward, a light frown on his face. “It is a great risk, of course. Adam and Ezekiel are in immediate danger also. They are being hunted even now.”
I regarded them with interest, wondering at Titch’s sober tone. Ezekiel kept his head lowered, his eyes fixed on his scuffed shoes. But I knew he would be a man of intensity and courage, simply by the fact that he had made it this far. Adam had a hardness in his eye, as though he had killed before. I had known a man like that at Faith, a leather worker whom we all believed had murdered a housegirl. That leather worker was found with a knife in his chest one morning down by the well.
Titch cleared his throat. “It seems surely a risk worth taking,” he said. “Does it not? Wash?”
And then I understood. But I did not want to. “What are you saying?” I asked.
“Lower your voice, boy,” said Mister Edgar. He glanced uneasily at the tunnel behind me.
I paid him no heed.
Titch regarded me a long moment. “I am telling you to go, Wash, to save your own life.”
I stood there surprised, not speaking.
Titch shook his head. “I am going north, Wash. To the Arctic.”
“I will never be satisfied until I find out what happened to my father. See his resting place with my own eyes.” He paused. “Wash, listen to me. Do you understand what all this is?”
I only stared at him. I had thought we would continue our journey together. “I’m not stupid.”
“Of course not.”
“You are telling me if I don’t go with them I will likely die.”
The runaway Ezekiel raised his face at this, and the pity there made me flush hotly. Still, I could not stop myself. “But it doesn’t have to be so. I do not have to die.”
“He is my brother, Wash. So long as you are with me, he will be near. And he will not relent, he is too proud. Your best chance is to disappear among the Loyalist communities, in Upper Canada. Among your people.”
I glared at the two runaways, as if this were their doing. I recalled suddenly something Big Kit had said—that free men had total dominion over their choices; that they controlled every aspect of their lives. Nothing happened that they themselves did not sanction.
I met Titch’s eye boldly. “If I am a Freeman, then it is my choice where I go.”
“Even if that means hiding in the Arctic.”
Mister Edgar glanced at me in puzzlement.
I suppose I believed there to be some bravery in this choice. I suppose it struck my boyhood self as an act of fidelity, gratitude, a return of the kindness I had been shown and never grown used to. Perhaps I felt Titch to be the only sort of family I had left. Perhaps, perhaps; even now I cannot speak with any certainty. I know only that in that moment I was terrified to my very core, and that the idea of embarking on a perilous journey without Titch filled me with a panic so savage it felt as if I were being asked to perform some brutal act upon myself, to sever my own throat.
I stayed firmly seated on the boards, grim, resolved. Titch gave me a pained look, obviously taken aback, confused by my choice. But he did not say any word more.
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