03 - 05

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 24

03 - 05

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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5

“WHITE WOMAN AIN’T but the devil. Don’t you do it.”

“She is not white,” I answered. “At least I do not think so. And to whom are you referring? What white women do you know?”

Medwin only raised his palms, shrugging.

I was seated on the crooked wooden staircase of our rooming house, a drink in my fist, taking Medwin’s counsel in the fine night air. Behind us, wild Irish sea shanties roared from one of the larger rooms, and there was much hooting and laughter.

I had only just begun to speak of Tanna when he cut me short.

“As if you ain’t been through hell on earth enough, boy.” He gave his head a shake. “You lost your damned mind? How do you suppose she even here, man? You think she just wish it and, poof, in a puff of smoke, here she is? Ain’t you said she from the Solomon Islands? Something ain’t right in all this. How she explain her being here?”

“She didn’t.”

“Well, then,” he said, looking profoundly satisfied.

“Your powers of detection are immense,” I said sourly. “You should start charging a fee. Set up a booth with a little pink awning. Help ladies find their lost hats.”

“Listen, boy, it’s this kind of stupidity finds you waking with your throat cut. It’s this kind of witchery gets your bowels shot out.” He coughed harshly against his fist. “Now just consider the particulars, won’t you? You a man with a face like a goddamn lobster salad, can’t barely make passable, sociable conversation. What the hell she want with a boy like you?”

I gave a resigned shrug, as if to say I wondered as much. I had had little experience with romance, it is true. In all my years I had loved but one girl, chastely—the housegirl Émilie, at Faith Plantation—and lain with two others: one a fine, fine lady, the other a prostitute, a fact unknown to me until all was over and done. The fine one, a girl called Vivian Hatcher, I had met at the dockyards when she’d come to bring a hot lunch to her father. Her father and I had been fellow dockworkers for weeks, but I knew nothing of him beyond that he hailed from Macon, Georgia, and had fought alongside the English in their Revolutionary War and was now breaking crates for little pay. Vivian was a quiet, dark-faced girl of fourteen, with a slow, open, thrilling gaze. We spent the afternoons in the grassy knoll behind her rooming house, eating maple sweets from a crackling paper sack and touching each other. Her father, when he learned of it, threatened to crush my skull. I understood at once that the quality he despised in me was the same one that had drawn Vivian in: my scarred face. He called it a “bloodied butcher’s board.”

Medwin poured another finger of gin into my chipped glass and we sat in silence, him drinking, me turning the full glass in my hands.

“She knows all there is to know about molluscs,” I said. “If you can imagine.”

“What I can imagine is your body hanging from some good old oak,” said Medwin, lapping at his empty glass. “What I can imagine is you dragged behind a horse cart. I do not care if she knows the secret to distilling angel-water, you stay right clear of the lady, you hear? Don’t you go back to that beach.”

I took a quick sip from my glass, shuddered.

Medwin gave his gravelly laugh. “Made that one myself. You like it?”

“As much as the company.”

“That good, huh?” He chuckled. “Hey, listen, now I’m seeing you—a man come on by looking for you. White fellow. Short. Ugly. Well, uglier than you, which is to say considerable.”

A rope of fear uncoiled in my stomach. “What did he say?”

“Not much. Real silent type. At first I thought he come to make trouble, to rustle me up for those brothers I cut the other night, but he was only making inquiries. Odd fellow. Got this real soft voice, like a widow’s or a kid’s. Kind of high-ish. Body ain’t look like much—I could’ve had him on the ground in a minute, boy. That said, there was something about him I wouldn’t cross.”

“What did he say?” I said again, my voice quiet.

“Well, nothing. Just asking after you. When I said I didn’t know you from Adam, he asked when you might be returning. Real quick bastard. I said again I did not know you but that you certainly sounded like a type I would never allow through the doors of my distinguished establishment. I told him to get the hell out and good fu@king luck with the search.”

I glanced up at him, trying to appear natural, failing terribly. “Thank you.”

“It’s bad, what he’s got on you, ain’t it? Bad bad. Won’t pry about it, though.” He shrugged, and gestured at my glass. “Anyhow. You got time for another?”

— THAT EVENING, and long into the next morning, I lay in bed with a dread heart. My sleep had been restless and tortured; I had awoken in a damp tangle of blankets, frightened.

I wanted to do what I’d done every morning for weeks: I wanted to gather my belongings and go to the shore, go out to her. I wanted to re-create yesterday, when she had placed her cold little hand in mine; but this time, I wanted to take her against me, press myself into her thighs, let her feel me, my desire for her. I wanted to put my mouth on her long, golden neck and feel the blood pulse under my tongue. But I could now not even leave my rooms; somehow, when I had most forgotten him, John Willard had found me.

I did not know beyond all doubt that it was him. But neither could I say with certainty that it wasn’t. The softness of voice Medwin had described, the small stature, the unsettling manner—it was too familiar, so that I lay flat on my back on the damp sheets, breathing raggedly.

But why did he still hunt me, after all these years? How was it that I still held value for Erasmus Wilde? Years had passed; the slave trade had long been abolished in West India; slavery itself was now ended there too, though it still darkened America. Surely the grudge did not hold? But the mind of an evil man is never legible. I only knew that I was now too frightened to leave my rooming house, and that what I most wanted in the world was to touch the fine strands of Tanna’s pinned black hair.

I cannot now think of how I managed it. But, shivering, reduced, I rose from the bed and began to pack my tools. Fighting back much terror, I was able to leave my rooming house that morning, to walk beyond the creaking door towards the beach.

The strand was deserted.

I scanned the rocky sand in the distance: only the shadows of trees, silence. My hands trembling badly, I set up my tools and waited, watching the horizon as much for Willard as for Tanna herself. No one came. After an hour I gathered my things and took the back roads home. There, staring nervously out the window, I ate a quick meal of boiled eggs. I was due that morning at my employment, delivering packages for Fummerton’s Dry Goods. I was determined to keep this post, and this required showing my face rain or shine, whether I had ten deliveries scheduled or none. And so I tucked an ivory-handled kitchen knife into my waistcoat and lowered my hat to go out.

The day passed without event, though it kept occurring to me that Willard had only to order a package under a false name to lure me to him. Pushing aside the twine, I scanned the names penned on the thick paper wrappers. Mrs. Stephen Blatch; Mister Raymond Grimes; Mister James Smith. This last seemed suspiciously benign, and as I neared the door of his grungy rooming-house flat, I felt the nausea rising. But he was only a wilting little person of thirty years, his hair thinning badly, and he accepted his package of sugar like a man slapped, gazing in shock at my wrecked face.

After work I dropped into bed, the knife beside me, exhausted from hours spent in tension and watchfulness.

Again the next morning Tanna did not appear at the strand. I did not stay long, and later only left my house to go deliver packages. When, the next day, she also did not show herself, I became disconsolate, and cursed myself for having so callously dropped her hand on that now-distant morning. For the whole encounter had come to seem a dream, as if in the madness of my solitude I had invented her—a figment to tear myself open, to destroy my freedom and peace of mind and wrench me off course. And then, suddenly, I began to connect her appearance in my life with Willard’s arrival. I asked myself if she was somehow working for him, sent to weaken my vigilance so that he could get at me. Was the thought so stupid? Yes, I decided, it was. I lay there picturing her as she’d been on the shore that last day, the play of light across her fine golden cheeks, the air smelling of rotted weeds and salt.

Days passed. There came sometimes a knock at my door, but I never answered. I knew it was likely only Medwin, but I did not want to risk it. Towards the week’s end I ran out of food and stayed the next two days together in bed, fasting. Finally, when my head began to spin and my muscles to shiver, I rose and walked weakly through the back roads to an open-air fruit stand a quarter mile away. I stood there scrutinizing the crowd, searching the bodies and faces for any likeness of Willard. I did not think I saw him, and went finally to choose some fruit. I was sorting through a basket of gooseberries when suddenly the air browned with tobacco and lavender, and I lifted my face. What were the chances? And yet it was she, Tanna Goff, tiny and sensuous in her slack dress, a distracted look on her face as she studied a cartful of wormy green apples.

People were glancing at her, some laughing quietly at her strangeness, yet she did not seem to know it. The early evening light gilded her skin, so that her whole face was illuminated. She seemed relaxed, and with some of her severity now gone, there was only the fine intelligence of her eyes, and the obvious bodily pleasure she took in being out in the fresh air.

How could I disturb this quiet, this peace? And yet it had been nearly a week, and with each waking disappointment my anguish had grown. And so I straightened my cuffs and, with a quick moistening of the lips, ambled through the small crowd.

But a queasiness rose up in me before I reached her, and I stopped. What would I say to her? What was it I desired? She would think me a child, foolish. Before she could catch sight of me, I squeezed between a stand of potatoes and a rickety apple cart, and fled.

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