03 - 02

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 21

03 - 02

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  • زمان مطالعه 9 دقیقه
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2

TITCH HAD SPOKEN much of the Loyalists; it was to them I resolved to go. I believed I would be safest among them. And so, after several weeks at that northern outpost, cowering away from the drunken traders, I finally managed to arrange passage on a vessel sailing for the Maritime isles. How frightened I was, how terrified to be a small black boy alone at sea. I stayed out of the captain’s path, fearing he might sell me to a passing ship bound for the Slave States. I was terrified also of meeting John Willard or his agents, convinced they would discover and kill me. One evening, as I sat eating a greening rind of cheese, a wrinkled-faced sailor approached. I stared in dread, awaiting a fatal blow. Instead, he hefted me up with his thick, bread-like hands and tied me with an end of spun rope to the rigging. There he danced, taunting me, until I agreed to stand treat a quart of rum. After that I spent little time on deck and spoke to no one. I hid in my quarters, feeling beneath me the slow heave of the boat, and paging through the one book I’d carried away—Titch’s fine leather-bound tract on sea creatures.

The sailors talked of many islands, of free ports. But it was a life among the Loyalists, in Nova Scotia, that I most desired. I travelled south, then east, crossing the dark waters, journeying overland by cart and carriage; and I arrived finally at Shelburne, with high expectations. But I found that the free, golden existence once described to me had been used up, crushed, drained to the skin by all who’d come before. Shelburne was wet and dreadful, its mud streets teeming with the tattered and the grey-faced, displaced roamers from last century’s American war. There was little land and fewer supplies, and the black-skinned were given the worst of it when they were given any at all. I worked for a time in a small-scale fishery. But my years on the plantation, and my memory of John Willard’s agent on the docks, had twisted something in me—I was everywhere uneasy in my skin, and this made me irritable and nervous and desperately melancholy, though I could not then have expressed it so. The fear, the fear was always with me. And not just of Willard’s agents—kidnappers generally roamed the coast, and in the rainy, grey dusk they would stun a freed man in the street and drag him half-conscious onto a ship bound for the Southern states, to make of him a slave again.

This was not the only hazard, though it was the worst of them. White men were everywhere aggrieved, and they would sometimes rise up against us black devils, the miserable black scourge who would destroy their livelihood by labouring at cheaper rates. One night I stood on the edge of an overcast tavern, drinking some fermented brew from a dirty tin cup, when someone crept up unseen behind me, like a piece of broken-off shadow, and closed his hands about my throat. We tussled and fumbled in the street, debris flying, when finally I managed to grab a fistful of pebbles and pressed them into his eyes. He cried out and I ran off, and though bystanders later told me he was only a local tough, an old defrocked Anglican priest known to many as a brawler, I could not shake the feeling of having escaped John Willard himself, and I grew even more watchful, and solitary.

Such were the times. I saw myself grow flint-like, and bitter, and fill with a restlessness beyond all sleep. Out walking one afternoon, I picked up a discarded piece of tin in the street, and peering at my reflection there, I saw in my eyes a lightlessness, a methodical will for violence. I knew I must move on, or kill, or be killed.

I was not yet sixteen years of age then. I had run through the coin Peter House had given me long before. And so I gathered my belongings and moved on. In those drifting days I often gave my name as Joseph Crawford, as if I might hide inside the spectre of another man. But finding myself never able to answer to it, and uneasy in my skin besides, I dropped the ruse and became again Washington Black. I settled on the edge of the Bedford Basin, in a sleepy township on a quieter shore, finding, in due time, work as a dishwasher and a laundry boy. I still struggled to continue to sketch, though my interest in it had waned; it did not afford me the solace it had once done, making me feel instead sad and drained. After a time I found work as a prep cook, and discovered I had a gift for it. By the end of 1834 I was working as a chef in a dining hall popular with disbanded soldiers and out-of-work fishermen flooding in from Newfoundland. But I cooked always behind a curtain, unseen, my scarred face being, the owner feared, repugnant. The schedule was demanding, and after some months of this I gave up drawing altogether, finding no extra hours in my day. Though I did not know it then, I had begun the months of my long desolation. I became a boy without identity, a walking shadow, and with each new month I fell deeper into strangeness. For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from the dimmest of shadows.

— MISTER WILDE HAD TOLD ME I was born with a ring of luck at my neck. Luck is its own kind of manacle, perhaps. I do not know when it happened, only that it gradually crept over me until one day I woke to a burning certainty: I needed to better my circumstances, or I would die.

I was a child no more; I was already a young man of sixteen. And so I found intermittent work at the docks. This work was a choice made in strength—for I governed how much I worked, and spent the rest of my days as I wished. I recalled what Big Kit had once said about freedom—that if he did not feel like working, the free man tossed down his shovel. If he did not like a question, he made no answer. And I was trying my best to live up to that ideal, to be my own free man. But it was quite an awakening, to leave behind Titch’s coddled world and meet again with the brutality of white men. To be called nigger and kicked at in disgust like a wharf rat. My colour was already one burden; my burns made life unconscionable. One night I was held down in the alleyway behind a drinking establishment and beaten and urinated on by my laughing white colleagues, men with whom I daily worked.

Rarely, by then, did I think of Titch. But sometimes at night I would remember his face, or his voice; and I would wonder at his possible survival in all that snow, though I knew it a hopeless thought. Given his empty beliefs about the afterlife, his confusion over his cousin’s choice, it surprised me that he too would end things so. It made me feel that perhaps I had never understood him.

It was in my lowest of days that the miraculous occurred. For I was hired on to unload a sailing vessel in the dead of night, and while rowing a crate ashore I noticed shapes in the black waters. I caught sight of a sudden current, a sudden flash. Then from farther off came another flash, and then another, tight explosions of green and yellow, as if comets were being detonated there.

I leaned over, staring. The sea was smooth as a wooden table, and yet I could see upon its surface an odd translucency. The ship’s light caught it, and oh, oh, what a sight drifted there, what alien and wondrous beings! For I observed now a wide, transparent green orb, pulsing, and beside it a yellow one, and then another and another, dozens of glistening suns flaring all about in the dark waters.

I had seen jellyfish before, in visits with Titch to the beaches near Faith. But never in such numbers, and never so vibrant, so glasslike. The black of the sea was far-reaching, as though no light could penetrate it. And yet here these creatures floated, fragile as a woman’s stocking, their bodies all afire. My breath left me. I leaned over the edge of the little rowboat and watched the sea pulse in a furnace of colour.

The dock master was shouting at me, cursing my laziness. I came to; I started to row again, the oars turning and scattering the light.

Later, back at my boarding house, I dug out my papers and paint, and I sketched for the first time in months. I sat in the fragrant glow of a tallow candle and attempted to capture what I’d seen in the waters. I could not. It had been a burst of incandescence, fleeting, radiant, every punch of light like a note of music.

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