04 - 01

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 32

04 - 01

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  • زمان مطالعه 7 دقیقه
  • سطح خیلی سخت

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PART IV

England

1836

1

THE BUILDING WAS LOVELY enough: tall, wooden, narrow, set in a grove of black poplar rambling gently down a slope in the zoological gardens. But the grounds were poor, the grass spotty and ash-strewn; some three years earlier the building’s left wing had exploded in the night, the boards flung burning into the black sky. An overturned candle, they’d said. It took months to reconstruct, and had only been completed the previous year. The timber on that side was yet pale, gleaming like a scar against the weathered planks.

This was no complaint. I was amazed we had been granted anything at all, given how outlandish our plan must have initially struck them as. Before leaving for London, Goff had pitched to the Zoological Committee our idea for a permanent exhibition of aquatic life in that city; we had been accepted enthusiastically. We could scarcely believe it. For days we went about dazed, half-believing it would all be wrenched from us. The city offered the land, and allowed for the repurposing of an old timber building in the gardens. If all went swiftly, we could open our doors to the public the following year. It would be called Ocean House.

Oh, what this meant to me, seeing my idea come into the world. Even the Cloud-cutter had not moved me as much—it had never been mine, despite all my work on it; it had always been Titch’s vision. But here, finally, was a thing of my own making—the invention of a boy born for obliteration, for toil and for death. What vindication, to think I might leave this mark.

Even if I alone would know it. For I was not naive. My name, I understood, would never be known in the history of the place. It would be Goff, not a slight, disfigured black man, who would forever be celebrated as the father of Ocean House. When I allowed myself to truly think of it, a tightness rose behind my eyes. Goff was not a bad man—he did not like to take credit for my discoveries in principle, but I understood he was getting older, and that the desire to make a late sensation burned deep in him. And I understood too the greater conundrum—for how could I, a Negro eighteen years old, with no formal scientific training, approach the committee on my own, or even be seen as an equal in the enterprise?

I did not dwell on it, in these slow, hazy days. London narrowed the hours, so that my life became gauzy, drifting, strange. The Goffs kept a small house edging the city, and they offered me the smaller garden house behind it, once storage for Goff’s lesser-used instruments. It was cramped and stank of mud but bright and pleasant enough. I adored it. Its four walls solid and final; my life made private, finally my own. To me the house felt inviolate. I knew that for any who would seek me I could still be discovered, but the shade of its tall Norway maples made me feel walled off from the world. For the first time in all remembering, I felt truly invisible.

It was no slight to me to be kept from the main house. I understood Goff was eager to maintain the illusion that Tanna and I were not lovers, though the fact must have been uncomfortably clear to him. I was happy to indulge the falsehood if it allowed me to live so near.

He had of course resisted my accompanying them to London. It was only in my laying bare all my troubles that he relented. But he remained gruff and unfriendly in the journey’s first week, so that I kept my distance. And yet, somehow, things began to shift during the long days at sea. We started to talk more and to joke again as we cared for the live specimens, and soon we were often together, changing and aerating the water, feeding our creatures. A bond took shape, something richer than the uneasy truce of Nova Scotia. I respected his mind and he mine, I believe, and this seemed, finally, enough.

There had also been his shock at how others treated me. Goff grew daily more uneasy with this. One evening a lady in dark, expensive finery paused at our bench on the viewing deck. Curling her lip, she stared at me with theatrical astonishment. When Goff asked sharply what she meant by this performance, she said, “Your nigger is best kept with the other animals below deck.”

I had never seen him so outraged. It was only through Tanna’s cautioning that some larger incident was not made of it. After that, when each new insult arose, he’d speak roughly to the aggressor, low-voiced and shivering, as if he were the slighted.

The winter crossing was rough, and some of the less hardy genera began to die off. When the octopus I’d caught in the cove grew colourless, lethargic, we stopped paying the steward to bring us sea water. Instead, Goff and I descended to the clanging, grim lower hold on the rare days we were in port and, stepping out into the blanched air, we’d disembark alongside a crewman to gather clean sea water into fir-wood casks. Using some rude instrument of my devising, we tested for impurities. The breeze would lift my hat, and I’d crouch there with my sticks and papers, sometimes cupping the water to my face to taste for deadly metals. Occasionally, a small, curious crowd would gather at the boat’s glistening rail to peer down at the strange old man and his ugly burnt slave who drank straight from the sea.

— IN THE DARK, rain-drenched afternoons Tanna would steal onto the deck and, sitting beside me on my damp blankets, open a book across our laps and listen to me read. She made no corrections; it was not a lesson but rather a recitation, and somehow my reading became fluid. Weeks before we reached England, I could comprehend the complex sentences of all my cherished books; and their drawings, which I had long admired as depictions, came newly alive for me, like remembered conversations. They went beyond mere likeness now; they were blood and wing and cell and breath.

And so the hours at sea were rich and peaceful, and I thought with a kind of longing of those strange months of drifting towards the Arctic, when the days turned endlessly white and freedom seemed a thing I might live in, like a coat, a warmth I could draw around myself as some armour against the world. How far away it all felt, that journey with Titch. As if a hard crust had grown over the loss of him.

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