03 - 12

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 31

03 - 12

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12

ISHOULD HAVE SOUGHT out Medwin. Medwin who had always the thirst for a fight, a desire to leave other men in ruins. Instead I found myself at the door of the small blue saltbox house, my blood staining the welcome mat.

When she answered the door, her hair was pinned sloppily at her nape with a series of laboratory clips. I was startled to see her dressed in her nightgown, a white, billowing gust of cloth, the edges of the sleeves soiled with ink.

I lowered my eyes. I had not realized she would be sleeping.

She came out to me at once. “Heaven’s sake, Wash,” she cried. “What has happened? Good lord, do come in.” Her voice sounded hollowed out, shaken.

I entered the reception hall, with its familiar comforting smell of lemons and fixative. I tried not to further hurt her modesty by looking at her dress, though the instinct was silly—here I stood bleeding and broken before her, my shirt torn. “Your father is not—?”

“Come in, come. Come into the drawing room. Let me fetch the medical bag.”

I remembered then that Goff was from home, to see after the rumoured existence of a winged fish.

She turned and bid me follow her to the parlour. The lamps caught her form, and I could see the trace of her body through the fabric. I glanced away, the scuff of my shoes loud in the hall, and I thought of the blood I must be trailing on the boards. But ever so slightly my eye was drawn back, and as I watched the soft undulation of her hips, a heat flooded through me, despite all.

As we entered the chaos of her parlour, the light from the low fire caught my face and she gasped, drawing shocked hands to her face. All at once she began to cry.

“Don’t cry, Tanna,” I said softly, but the words were slurred, distorted with blood.

Clearing her throat, she led me across to the settee under the dusty window and went to fetch her father’s bag of medical supplies. The embers of a fire hissed in the hearth, heavy, half-burnt logs crushing it into smoke, a smell of char and menthol in the room. Beneath me, the settee was strewn with patchwork blankets. Stacked by its side was a pile of stained, warped books, as though tea had been poured over them.

She returned and, crouching before me in her sheer nightgown, began to sort wildly through the leather sack’s tangle of bandages and salves and threads. “Do you need sutures?” she said, still in a haze of shock. “You will need sutures.”

I moistened my lips, tried to focus on breathing.

I could hear her own ragged breath passing dryly over her lips. Kneeled before me there, I could see the fine sheen of sweat on her forehead. She bit at her lip in concentration. When she raised her hands to dab at my cheek with a cotton, I could smell the vague sweat in her armpits.

“Bastards,” she said, sniffling. She began to heat a needle for the suturing.

“What?”

“My god, they are vicious to Negroes here. It’s appalling.”

I said nothing, adjusted my chin.

She began to stitch my torn face. Her fingers were gentle, soft, and she worked unhurriedly. I tried not to flinch, gazing upon her tensed brow. Finally she said, “You think I’ve made a bad job of it.”

I touched at my face.

“Not the sutures—my sutures are perfect. I am talking of my fire. I saw the look of contempt you gave it when you came in. I have been giving it that look myself all day. Well, I am a zoologist’s daughter, not a lumberjack’s. What do I know of fires?”

I cleared my throat. “Would you like me to fix it for you?”

“No, no, of course not. You must rest.”

But I stood from the dishevelled settee, the springs creaking. She protested, but fell silent when it seemed clear I would not listen.

“What is it?” said I, seeing her look at me strangely.

“It is not a good look for you, these new wounds,” she said.

I touched my battered face gingerly, tried to smile.

“You are like an interruption in a novel, Wash. The agent that sets things off course. Like a hailstorm. Or a wedding.”

“I do not read novels.”

“Do not let my endorsement dissuade you. They are not all as I describe.” She rose swiftly from her place on the floor, so that her gown slid up and I could see the golden sheen of her kneecaps shining there in the poor light. I turned back to the fire.

“That is enough,” she said softly. “You will injure yourself further.”

But I kept at my work, turning my back to her.

“Something is blowing in,” she murmured, and from the direction of her voice I understood she was facing the window. “Father will surely be waylaid.”

Finally the flint began to spark, and I turned the logs aside and reached out for the kindling to feed the little flame.

“This timber is still damp,” I said, turning to her. “Has it not been brought inside to dry?”

She gave a helpless little shrug of her shoulders. “I’m hopeless.”

I stood, dusting the flakes of bark from my knees.

“Why do you insist on worsening your injuries? Sit down, Wash. Rest.”

“Is there anything else you need before I leave you?”

“Leave me? You are in no state to leave.”

But I shuddered at the idea of Goff finding us here alone, together.

She nodded, and it was clear she too had thoughts of her father. “Yes.”

“I had better go.”

“Yes.” But she did not stir from her place; she made no move to see me out. She said, instead, “You are a gentleman, George Washington. Perhaps too much so.”

I could see the glow of her body through the thin fabric of her gown. I did not feel like a gentleman.

“I have disturbed you, Tanna,” I said.

“Yes,” she said again, but it was as though she was answering a different meaning.

Her eyes were narrowed. I felt my heart quicken, a heat radiating through me. As I stared at the dark shadow of her body through the cloth, the clean hollow at the base of her throat, the fine, hard bones of her ribs, the crest between her thighs, I wanted to rest my hands on her, to place my mouth on all that was hidden from me.

“Washington,” she said softly.

That was all. And then slowly she stepped forward and, looking boldly at me, she began to unfasten the bone buttons of her gown. I heard only the sputtering of the hearth behind me, the scratch of the cat in a far-off room. She looked for a moment to the hall, as if she had heard a sound, and then quite silently the cloth dropped to the floor.

— SOMETIME DURING THE HOUR a harsh rain began to fall. In the darkness we lay watching the long silver threads slamming down past the window, chewing up the earth. Water roared and overflowed the ditches. The porch groaned, as though ghosts walked back and forth upon it. I thought of Willard, still out there, the knife in his eye.

Tanna lay with her hair strewn across my good arm, the strands of it black, soft. We were on the floor before the settee, the rug under us gritty with crumbs. I was filled with an elation beyond all pain, still shocked at how natural it had all felt, at how much we’d already understood of each other’s bodies.

I kissed at her forehead. “You were to illustrate your father’s tract, weren’t you?” I said softly. “The one he has asked me to illustrate?”

“No.” Her smile was vague. “I had hoped he would ask. It is why I have spent these months improving my skill.” She shrugged one shoulder. “But it is right. You are the wiser choice.”

“I’ll decline, Tanna.”

“And punish yourself? No.”

“We could illustrate together, then. There will be more than enough plates.”

“Father’s book will be a success, I am sure, and much more so with your hand at work in it than my own. And I think you must do it, my dear poor Washington Black. If not for yourself, then for those like you who would never get the chance of it. Men as talented as you, who will never get the chance of anything.”

“What difference does that make?”

“I think it makes a great difference.”

“No one will know my origins from looking at my drawings, Tanna.”

“Truth has a way of coming clear,” said she. She put a finger to my lips, to silence any further protest. Then she turned from me in the flickering light, reaching for a cup of cold tea balanced on a stack of books. The bones of her spine pried through her skin. Above her backside were three large, dark, circular birthmarks.

“And what are these?” said I, mischievously.

“Oh, I hate them,” she cried, wriggling away from me. “Don’t you look at them. Bind your eyes.”

“They remind me of low tide. Of the patches of earth that surface when the water retreats.”

She rolled towards me, planting a kiss on my nose. “You make an awful poet, George Washington Black.”

I lay thoughtfully some moments. “What is your favourite marine organism?”

“I beg your pardon?” she murmured, gently kissing my neck. “That is not what you wish to talk about.”

“Mine is the nudibranch.”

“Because it is nude?”

“Because it will steal the harpoon off a jellyfish or anemone, then mount it to its own back as a weapon.”

She leaned back. “Is that some comment on my character? Come, we needn’t speak in these metaphors.” The expression on my face made her pause, and laugh. “Oh, for goodness’ sake. You are in earnest? I could not say, perhaps the octopus. If I were forced to choose.”

But I was not to be put off. “The octopus?” said I, smiling. “Wonderful.”

“All right.”

“Because it is so strange?”

“Strange? An animal that can change itself to match its surroundings, just by contracting its skin? That can weigh as many stone as a man and stretch the length of a carriage, and yet fold its body through a crevice? Whose brain is wrapped about its throat—a brain no larger than a pea—but who is clever enough to play actual games? An animal with this much ingenuity, this much intelligence, who will sadly die within five years? I would not call that strange, but magisterial. Your nudibranch is nothing, dear George Washington Black. Octopodes are the gods of the sea.”

“I think it is octopi.”

“And I think your Greek and your Latin are confused.”

She turned to me with a vague smile, so that I could see the smatter of raised black freckles peppering her cheeks.

I kissed her ear. “They have three hearts,” I murmured, smiling.

She grimaced. “Oh, dear god. I fear there is more poetry in you after all.”

There came then a scratching from beyond the door. “Medusa wants in,” I said.

“Let her wait.”

I gathered her in closer, feeling the cold dampness of her skin. I grabbed a blanket off the settee to cover us, and a sudden taste of fresh blood filled my mouth, as though I had torn something anew. The wool was rough and stank of camphor.

“I have always felt myself to be different from everyone, to be apart,” she said with a pale smile. “I know you do too. I could sense it on that first day, on the beach.” She paused, raising her face to me. “I meant you no ill will when I said you were a slave,” she said softly.

Somehow, when she said it, all the desperate pain of these last hours rose up in me and I feared I would cry. I lay in silence, breathing.

She raised a thin hand, gently traced the knotted scar of the F on my chest. “Your master was cruel to you.”

I did not want to speak of it. And yet I found myself going back to Faith Plantation, to Big Kit, to the strange, miraculous arrival of Christopher Wilde. I started to speak, slowly, methodically, something tightening all the while in my chest. How young I’d been then, how very different I now felt myself to be. I told her of the cruelties before Titch took me up, and of the unbelievable wonder of my time with him, when life had seemed to stretch the limits of reality. I spoke of Philip’s suicide and of the hasty trip to the Arctic, Titch’s final words as he walked into the snow.

“He sounds an apparition,” she said. “He sounds a ghost.”

“Then I am not describing it well,” I said, but without reproach. For in truth I did sometimes have the feeling that I had dreamed him. “Life with Titch,” I continued, “it was not real, Tanna, it was not the world. That is not a kindness for a slave boy. There were times, I am ashamed to say, when I just shut my heart to all the cruelty going on out there, beyond our door. I simply stopped seeing it. I was so afraid of returning to it. Does that not sound monstrous? But what Titch offered me, my own deliverance, was of worth because of the horror that was going on around me. I turned away from Big Kit. From all I had once known.”

She was silent, staring into the nearly dead fire. “It was John Willard, wasn’t it?” she said. “Who attacked you. It was no random incident. John Willard or one of his agents.”

I lay my head back, stared up at the cracked plaster in the near dark. I sighed.

A long silence passed before she asked, softly, “Was it fatal, Washington? Did you kill him?”

“He is not killed.” For though I had used all my might, the angle had been awkward, my purchase on the knife askew. He would no doubt lose his eye, but it would surprise me to learn of worse. And in some strange way it was a mercy to me, accepting that I had spared him. To be certain that I would never become what he had hunted these long years, a murderer.

Tanna raised her head. “Well, you must come with us to London at once, Wash. You cannot stay here. He will find you.”

“It is over, Tanna.”

“In London you will have more protections.”

“Titch argued differently. In any case, it is over.”

“Why would he argue differently? I do not understand. Surely it is obvious that you would.” She paused. “You will not like to hear this, but from everything you have told me, it is clear to me that this Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person—however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“That is not so.”

“It is, frankly. You have intimated that he first chose you because of your size. Because you would make for good ballast. And then he had you scrambling all about as his assistant, picking things up, drawing for him.” She grimaced. “But were you anything nearing his equal, Wash? I doubt very much that he saw anything in you beyond your immediate usefulness to him. How could he, given the imbalance in your statures?”

I moistened my lips. I did not think it so, but did not dispute it.

“Even the Cloud-cutter,” Tanna continued. “Did it ever occur to Wilde that having those poor souls drag and assemble his contraption up on the hill was likely as physically gruelling to them as their regular field work?”

I said nothing, my mind casting back to the sight of the slaves’ pale clothes shadowed against the brighter sky.

Tanna rose onto one elbow. “Father and I recently visited New York City. Have you seen it? Oh, Wash, it is a dream. We lodged with a friend of my father’s, a Quaker. One evening he took us to a meeting at the Society of Friends. I knew nothing of what any of it was, but I sat there just smiling and listening. Well, they talked and talked—and it was all poor Negro this, poor Negro that. And wouldn’t you know, there were three Negroes in attendance, and they were made to sit on separate benches, away from everyone else. I could scarcely believe it—the irony. And none of the Quakers seemed in the least conscious of it.”

I lay there, feeling a pain shoot through my shoulder. I let out a long, slow breath. “Erasmus Wilde is dead now. Willard said it. It is over.”

Tanna looked sharply at me. “And you believe him?”

I thought some moments. “I do.”

Tanna was silent.

“He also said something else. He said he had seen Titch in Liverpool two years ago. In the street.”

“Alive?”

“One would imagine so.”

Tanna gazed up at me from the tangle of blankets, staring a long while. “But he would say such a thing, wouldn’t he? To confuse you, to put you off your guard? It is a lie, Washington.”

“And if it is not?”

“What does it matter? What would it matter if he is still alive? You are your own man, Washington. You owe nothing to Christopher Wilde. You have been standing on your own two feet. Now keep going. Save yourself. Come with us to London. Come with me.” She looked up at me. “I cannot bear to think of you staying here.”

“Willard will not come after me again, Tanna.”

“You have struck a white man. It would not be difficult for him.”

I said nothing.

She tried to smile. “And tell me, good Mister Black, to whom shall I direct my abuse if you are not near? And who shall hold my robe for me while I undress?” She peered up at me. “If these are not temptations enough, think of the specimens. How will we manage them without you?”

I remembered my tanks then, wanting badly to describe what I’d discovered, to describe the prototype of wood and glass. But I was so tired, and instead I closed my eyes. There would be time enough later.

She kissed my forehead.

I asked, “Why do you smell always of tobacco?”

“You can smell it?” She pinched up a strand of hair and sniffed. “I had thought I concealed it well.” She glanced up at me. “You don’t suppose my father has noticed, do you?”

At the mention of Goff I fell silent, pressing my face into her hair.

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