04 - 15

کتاب: واشینگتون سیاه / فصل 46

04 - 15

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15

THE HOUR GREW LATE. Titch insisted Tanna take the back room with the cot; I was invited to sleep on the settee in the front room we’d eaten in. He himself would sleep alongside the boy in a tent pitched outside. When Tanna objected, Titch explained, “We might have done so anyway, on a night such as this. To observe the stars.”

“You said there was a storm coming.”

“It is well sheltered from the weather,” Titch said. “I’m more concerned about scorpions and snakes.”

“Dear god.”

“Rest easy.” Titch smiled tiredly. “Do stay off the floor.”

And taking the boy by the shoulder, he went out, our driver following quietly behind.

I could not get comfortable for the sensation that I was lying where Titch’s own body sat, day after day. I twisted and turned. There was also the cold; how surprising that such cold should exist in the desert. When finally I did drift off I dreamed of Ocean House. But it was no grey wood building half-salvaged from a fire. It was a huge glass structure, an enormous greenhouse, its sides all windows, reflecting the frenzied trees around it. Everything was shimmer and light. I stood staring, my eyes wincing up at the bright, rattling panes.

All at once Big Kit was beside me. I felt no tension from her, no pain—she appeared to be in a state of resolute calm, as if the hard layer of fury she’d worn about her like an armour had been scraped away. Her cheeks looked hollowed in the dusk, her face speckled with the late afternoon light sieving through the trees. She seemed in her silence neither fully awake nor sleeping, nor even dead or alive. She had outgrown such borders, passed through them into some murkier place. There was in her orange eyes a brightness like copper, a hot, lucent sheen. But she did not glance at me. I thought I should reach out, take her hand as I’d always done. Instead I only stood quietly beside her, feeling the heat pouring from her skin, the good living warmth of it. The wind held a smell of rain, of mud, though the sun lingered. Our reflections shivered in the mirrored panes like spectres.

And then I awoke.

— MY BAD RIBS ACHED, so that I rose from the settee and paced the small room. I wanted to go outside, to take the air. The cold was as suffocating as any heat. I flattened my palm along the wall, guiding my slow way forward by the coarse plaster. The room smelled still of boiled vegetables.

I was disoriented, and found myself instead in the back room with the cot. How I could get lost in a two-room dwelling I did not understand. In the dark I could see Tanna’s sleeping form breathing softly. It was the smaller of the rooms, the walls painted stark white and left bare of portraiture. There were thin cracks in the plaster and I could hear small creatures scuttling in and out of these breaches.

I was feeling my way towards the door when I heard Tanna call out, “Who’s there?”

“You are awake?” I said, going to sit by her cot. Moonlight fell in a large pane on the wall above her prone body. “Forgive me, I did not mean to frighten you.”

I felt her soft grip on my shoulder, and I pressed my lips to her moist hand.

“You could not sleep?” she yawned.

“I had a dream,” said I.

“What was it?”

I kissed her hand again, patted it. The moonlight began to drift slowly across the stippled whitewash, so that the wall appeared almost lunar.

“England feels very far away,” she murmured.

“It does.”

“Ocean House feels very far away.”

Indeed, it was as though many years had passed, so much another life did that seem.

“Do you despise me?” she said softly. I turned to her in the darkness, not understanding. “For being kind to him?”

“Of course not—you are decent, merciful. It is why I love you.”

She hesitated. “His eyes—never in all my life have I seen such pain in a man’s eyes. You did not tell me he looked like that.”

“He did not always. When I knew him he was different.”

“It must be so shocking to you.”

I said nothing, brushing grit from my hand.

“Is it as you imagined?” she said, yawning again. “All this? Is it what you had pictured?”

“One could hardly imagine this.”

“No.” She fell suddenly silent.

“What is it?”

I sensed her turning away in the dark. “Nothing.”

But I thought I understood what she would not ask. I understood she desired to know if I had found what I was seeking, if this trip would finally satisfy my erratic pursuit of an unanswerable truth, if it would calm my sense of rootlessness, solve the chaos of my origins for me. She wanted to know if anything would be laid to rest, or if we’d continue to drift through the world together, going from place to place until I made her like me, so lacking a foothold anywhere that nowhere felt like home.

“It was a madness, coming here,” I said quietly. “I am sorry.”

But she had already softened into sleep.

— I NOTICED THEN a door just beyond her cot, leading outside. I went forward slowly and opened it, the breeze rushing in. Above the low roof the heavens were vast, filled with bright stars. I could hear a thrumming in the distance, and I thought it must be the large tarp in the courtyard out front, shuddering in the strong wind. The air was even cooler, denser, and I shivered. I looked up into the illuminated plate of the sky.

I saw a door to the very right of me, as if there were another room. It was half-open and spilling with light, as in a dream. Uneasy, I went towards it.

Going in, I stepped instantly back.

Dozens of scientific instruments had been piled here, so many papers and scales and scopes that the door could only open partway before striking a desk on which a candle was set. It was as if a single obsessive thought had been made manifest in these tools; each steel piece seemed an idea cast aside, each glass scope a possible answer.

Nailed to the walls were several glossy black sheets; in the middle of them, like drops of milk dissolving in ink, were blots of the purest white. They were ghostly, strange, like phantoms of the human brain. I stood mesmerized before them, so that it was some time before my eyes roamed to the picture pinned beside them. It was a portrait of the boy, his eyes clear and dark-lashed, his right cheek distorted by poor fixatives. It was as if light had attacked one side of his face, as if the chemicals had been unstable.

“Those are the moon.”

I turned to find Titch still dressed in his clothes from the evening. He appeared less nervous, though the uneasiness was there still. He stepped forward. “I attempted to capture an image of the moon by polishing sheets of silver-plated copper, treating them with fumes and exposing them at midnight.” He traced his slender, emerald-ringed finger from the white blots to the child’s face. “The process works much better with human faces than astral features, as you see. But my goal is to have them be equally sharp. I think it is a question of distance. Of distance from one’s subject.”

I searched his face, feeling there was something now more recognizable in it.

“But human faces are so interesting,” said I.

“Yes, to be sure. But when you are looking at one face, you are not looking at another. You are privileging that face. You are deciding who is worthy of observation and who is not. You are choosing who is worth preserving.” He shook his head, and it was as though he was too tired to hear the irony in his words.

I gestured at the portrait of the young boy. “He is your assistant?”

Titch hesitated. “He is learning.” He glanced away. “It comes, though slowly.”

I nodded.

“I did not—” said he, and I turned to find him flushed. “I was afraid you might think…I did not want you to think I had merely replaced you.”

Silence passed between us; strange birdcall echoed from beyond the walls.

“You are happy here?” I said.

He looked warily at me. “There are several kinds of happiness, Washington. Sometimes it is not for us to choose, or even understand, the one granted us.”

It was supposed to be a wisdom; it sounded instead like something he said to comfort himself these cold nights when only the sound of wind and strange cries could be heard.

I felt the cold running into my bones. I shivered, gripping my coat close around me.

“Shall we go inside?” said Titch.

“Where did you go, when you left your father’s camp?” I said. “Peter said you spoke some madness about it—that you had been there among us the whole time, that you could see us. But where did you truly go?”

He moistened his lips, but said nothing.

“A search party was sent out to find you, from your father’s encampment. Did you never chance to cross paths? How is it they never discovered you?”

Again he seemed disinclined to say anything.

“I have travelled all this way,” I said.

He exhaled a slow breath, and I thought he would speak, but he was silent a long while. Finally he said, “I knew you would never leave me.” He paused. “I could not go in a simple way.”

“So it was a ruse? You only made it look as if you left?”

“I left.” He frowned out at the air before us, as though he saw something in it. But he said nothing more.

“I might have died there,” I said.

“You had Peter, you had my father. I would not have left you otherwise. I knew you would be well cared for.” He turned to me. “You were with my father, when he died?”

I stared, nodded rigidly.

“That was always a great comfort to me, that you were there. My brother died also, some two years ago. I had thought his death would shatter me, but it did not. I was shocked at myself, at the callousness I could feel. We were boys together, we were blood. And yet, nothing.”

What would he have me say to this? His brother had been a cruel, evil man and it struck me as only just that no one should cry at his passing. I was only surprised that Haas and Solander had spoken so differently, had said Titch had been devastated.

“I went some years ago to clean up Faith. I put all its records in London, as you know.” He glanced in pity at me. “I saw your Kit on the list of the deceased. I had not known it then, that she was your mother.” He frowned softly. “She died naturally, I understood.”

I knew it was a kindness he was trying to extend, an attempt to bridge the distance he sensed between us. And yet I did not wish to share this wound with him; I did not wish to share it with anyone.

“You told me once, when I was drawing, ‘Be faithful to what you see, and not what you are supposed to see.’ ”

“Did I say that?” Titch seemed genuinely surprised.

“You did. And yet it always did seem to me that you never lived by it yourself.”

He paused. “What do you mean?”

“You did not see me—you did not look at me, and see me. You wanted to, but you didn’t, you failed. You saw, in the end, what every other white man saw when he looked at me.”

He frowned softly. “That is untrue.”

I moistened my lips, and it was as though I could finally ask it, the question that had twisted and defined my life.

But he wanted to go, and starting to walk ahead, he said, “Come, there is something I would show you.”

“Titch,” I said sharply, and it surprised me, the depth of the anguish in my voice.

He stopped. There was an expression of sad warning in his face, as if he wished to ward off what I might say.

I stepped forward, my heart punching in my rib cage. “Why did you choose me?”

He stood expressionless.

“That first evening, when Big Kit and I were serving dinner for your brother. You chose me quite deliberately that night. I remember it. You said I was just the right size for your Cloud-cutter. You chose me because I would make the perfect ballast.”

There was a curious look on his face.

“Do you deny it?”

He frowned. “Why do you ask me this?”

“That is your answer?”

He shook his head. “I said it quite plainly at the time. Your size is indeed why I chose you. I made no secret of it.”

I smiled angrily, feeling both vindicated and desperately heartsick.

“What else would I have had to go on, not knowing you at the time? It is why I chose you, but it is not why I engaged you to help with my experiments. It is not why I befriended you. Do you suppose just anybody could have grasped the complexity of those equations? You were a rare thing.”

“Thing?”

“Person. A rare person.”

“Not so rare that I could not be abandoned. Not be replaced.” I felt a pain high up in my throat, and when I spoke, there was a pressure in my voice I could not control. “And so you took in a young black boy, and you educated him as if he were an English boy. For his benefit, though? Or so that you might write about it?”

He looked quietly shocked. “I have never written about it.”

“You took me on because I was helpful in your political cause. Because I could aid in your experiments. Beyond that I was of no use to you, and so you abandoned me.” I struggled to get my breath. “I was nothing to you. You never saw me as equal. You were more concerned that slavery should be a moral stain upon white men than by the actual damage it wreaks on black men.”

Even as I spoke these words, I could hear what a false picture they painted, and also how they were painfully true.

He stared at me. Slowly, ever so slowly, he shook his head. He peered calmly at me with his dark-green eyes.

I stood, my mouth dry, waiting.

Again he shook his head. “I treated you as family.”

How strange, I thought, looking upon his sad, kind face, that this man had once been my entire world, and yet we could come to no final understanding of one another. He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the suffering of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. He had saved my very flesh, taken me away from certain death. His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it.

“Please,” said he, “just let me show it to you.”

I felt the blood shifting in my body, a heat rising to my cool skin.

“Washington,” he said.

I looked upon his pained face, and I went.

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