Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Paint It Black, Part One

Sitting on the window sill as I eat my breakfast, I cast my gaze out over the waterfront district of this colonial port town. I see men bartering over barrels of whiskey, pointing hands shouting as several lankier looking fellows roll said barrels down a ramp leading from the boat to the pier. Fishmongers, all surly looking sailors with skin as tough as any animal hide and as tanned as the skin of a coconut shout their wares to the errand boys moving through the crowds, who duck between shopping wives and mothers, who turn their nose at the homeless children begging for alms in the gutter.

I snort as I sip my mead. “People,” I mutter, dangling my feet freely some two stories up from the ground, “they just make me sick.”
“Speaking of sick, you’d best finish your brekkers before the master awakens,” A motherly voice clucks from behind me, forcing me to fight at rolling my eyes. Placing the ceramic plate, still loaded with a slice of ham and some egg, on the sill beside me, I grab onto the windows edges and lean back into the room, looking at Marie, and the room, upside down.
Or were they right side up? I giggle and grunt as I roll my legs up to my chest and tumble through the window into the room, earning a gasp from the heavyset woman. Looking at her, I ruffle my hair a bit like a nervous habit due to how prim and proper she is.
Done up in a white-and-black servants outfit, the pudgy woman ran the house for the master, watching over his thirty-odd slaves back on the plantation, and the three that stayed here at his port side home.
A merchant by trade in his earlier years, William Morsely had made his fortune on the backs of hard working slaves from the dark heart of Africa, taking in what he called savages and “taming them” so that they would become better servants. Not a single man, woman or child that passed through the master’s hands was left unblemished, no no. He liked to punish those that he considered as “failures”, such as a slave who stopped tending from the Opium fields or the cattle due to exhaustion or hunger.
Such a slave had nothing to look forward to except a harsh whipping from dear old Master Morsely. And up until a few years ago, good Lord how he enjoyed tanning our hides. Even my back has a few old welts on it that have never truly faded… and I’m his son!
Not that he’d ever admit it in the company of “decent” folk, but he had a wandering eye in his youth, and would often punish some of his prettier slaves with a nightly visit to the slaves’ quarters. Momma says she remembers hearing the other girls scream and scream, all while he laughed and laughed… that was why when she dropped a pitcher of water and caught his eye, she didn’t scream when he came.
She just took it and bit her tongue, and he never bothered her again.
Not that he needed to mind you, seeing as that one visit was enough to result in a smaller, softer version of me. Somehow, in some way, my fragile little form had touched the heart of that monster and he’d made me his personal errand boy as soon as I was old enough.
Rolling to the side, I drop to the floor and plant my hands flat on the wood and begin doing my morning exercises, starting with the push-ups. Master wanted his errand boy nice and strong, and twice as nasty as he could be at a moment’s notice.
It took some getting used to, but I was able to do more for my brothers and sisters by monitoring them as a taskmaster than dear old dad spending his hard earned drug money on hiring a white worker. I had ‘em plant extra fields, bargained for extra coin from the doctors and opium dens, and used that money to buy extra goods for the slaves: bibles for reading, for those that could read, and chocolate for the kids when they were getting loud.
Nothing angered master more than a crying Negro, young or old. And ever since I took over his whipping duties since he fell ill, I chose to try and stifle the tears and just keep the pain down to a minimum.
“Cornelius!” A paper thin voice cried from upstairs, obviously straining.
I pop my feet beneath me and launch to the doorway, past Marie, who I merely give a pat on the ass just to have her laugh and swipe at me. Jogging up the stairs in just my breeches, I stop at the door to the master’s bedroom, pausing to look over myself.
Looking at my slightly sweaty chest, I wipe it off and heave a sigh. “Clean enough,” I mutter, before picking up my voice and announcing my presence, “May I enter sir?”
“Yes, you may.” The voice is regal and old, and as I open the door I can see the frail figure of my master and father taking small steps away from the bathing room, a silken robe hanging loosely over his gaunt features. His face, with sloughed skin sagging into jowls, was in a horrid grimace and he favored one foot over the other, with clear reason if you were fool enough to be caught looking at the darkened appendage.
That’s how I’d earned my last beating.
“Cornelius, I have a job for you to do,” the master said as he eased himself into his bed, raising his legs slowly, obviously in pain as he brought them up atop a silken pillow. Laying nude save for his open robe on a garish purple bedspread, draperies hanging around him, I do my best not to look disgusted. I instead busy myself with moving over to pack his pipe full of hash, holding it over the oil lamp casting light in the darkened room to light the painkiller, before passing it to a grateful old man.
“Thank you Cornelius,” he said as he puffed on the pipe, visibly relaxing now that he had his vice within reach, “the task! You almost made me forget!”
“I’m sorry sir,” I bow my head, seething inwardly. He pats my cheek with his skeletal hand, long fingernails grazing my skin like the tips of yellowed razors.
“No need to apologize my boy, you just got me my medicine before I had to ask for it. Good discipline!” He barked, smiling around his pipe before taking a long drag. Exhaling, he fluttered his eyes closed for the briefest of moments before snapping them open. “Now then, before I relax too much, I need you to do me one favor before going to the fields for the next two weeks.”
I remain silent, hands folded behind my back as I wait for him to tell me my task before I can rejoin my brothers and sisters.
He blows out a smoke ring with a smile before lolling his head to the side, looking at me. “I have how many slaves Cornelius?”
“Thirty-five, including me, sir,” I reply, not bothering to look him in the eye.
“Thirty five, eh? I would have sworn I had more!” He exclaimed, looking at me with a harsh glare. I flinch beneath his gaze and tighten my fists behind my back.
“Forty… Forty seven, if’n you include the young‘uns and old folk.” I say with hesitance, not liking where this is going.
Master Morsely smacks his lips as if he has a bad taste in his mouth. “Twelve extra mouths to feed that aren’t doing me a lot of good as of yet… I want you to get rid of ‘em.”
A pit forms in my stomach as I stare down at him in horror, watching as he casually puffs on his pipe. I try and get my mouth to work, but the thought of tearing children from their families and selling them at auction… they wouldn’t fetch much, would probably go to brothels. And the old folks! They’d likely die before they got bought by someone, live the rest of their days in some pen waiting for the next auction to come around.
“I’ll… I’ll bring the paperwork up for you to stamp, marking that the children and old folks to be put up for sale. How much do you want me to get for them?”
Master Morsely shakes his head slowly, holding his pipe by the warm bowl and coughing into his free hand. “You misunderstand me Cornelius, I don’t want them sold. I want them hung.”
My blood freezes at his words, and I betray my outward expression as I open my mouth, silently gasping in agony as I realize what he’s asking me to do. I see his yellow-toothed grin as he takes another long drag from his pipe, and do everything I can not to just tear his face off.
“I know you been swindling funds about for your little cousins Cornelius, and you know I don’t take kindly to being swindled.” He says as he nestles into the bed, looking for a comfortable spot. “I’ve already had Marie take a letter to the sheriff’s office telling them you would be pointing out which of your Negro brethren are to be hung. If you don’t choose twelve, well then, he’ll just hang  ‘em all.”
“You wouldn’t!” I cry, speaking out for the first time. I can see he is enjoying this as he cracks a wide grin. “How would you manage your crops? Who would sell your goods and trade your wares?”
Master just laughs hoarsely, which turns into a series of wet coughs. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve before looking up at me with a baleful glare. “You know I’m good as dead boy… maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. The next in line to take over my property is that no-good nephew of mine up in Conneticut… and I doubt he’d do anything but rake in the profits after instilling you as the taskmaster, seeing as I’ve done it these past few years.”
“So why kill us off? Why cause such unnecessary pain?” I ask, dropping to my knees beside his bed, resting my elbows on the purple duvet.
He chuckles, puffing on his pipe. “Because it amuses me to think I might just send a few of you drum banging man-apes to Hell before I go on to Heaven, and because it bothers you; and like I said, you swindled me. I don’t like being swindled.”
“I had the slaves plant extra crops and traded the goods for blankets and clothes for the workers; I didn’t hide the money like some wretched miser like you!” I growl, balling my fists on the bedspread.
He smiles at me, blowing smoke in my direction. “Your angry… that’s good boy, get angry. That’s what your Momma’s blood will do to ya if ya don’t keep an even head like me. I did you a favor by fathering you, and an even bigger one by not having your Momma pushed down the stairs when you were in her belly. You should be thankful.”
“Thankful?” I cry, looking at him as if he were mad. “You’ve had me beat my kin like they were dogs, and treat my cousins and brothers worse than you would treat dogs! You’ve starved me and beaten me, and threatened to sell Momma away from the plantation if I step out of line… what in the Hell should I be thankful to you for?”
“For raising you right!” He growls, his voice dry and coarse as he locks his steely gaze with mine. “I raised you like you were my own, beating the Negro spirit out of you whenever you showed it. Now look what you’re about to inherit! A whole plantation to yourself with a master in a faraway colony; you’ll never see him! You’ll live out the rest of your days good and happy.”
“After I consign twelve of my people to death!” I cry, forcing myself to my feet, turning away from the old man. “How could I live with myself?”
“Easy. Stop thinking of them as people,” Master says with a smile in his voice, “I took all of you in, either through breeding or coin, and raised you all with the tenants of the Good Book. I even let some of you learn how to read so you could read God’s word to each other. Sure, I may have taken the cane to one or two of you, but I spared you all the dangers of the world, and led you to Christ; whatever pain you suffer here will be rewarded once you go to Heaven, should He allow Negroes to go.”
Gritting my teeth, I look over my shoulder at him. He just smiles benevolently and waves me to go on. “The carriage should have been pulled around by now. You go to the plantation and sort out those that you’re going to send to the gallows. If you’re smart, you’ll send the children and the old. But then again I have always thought you had your Momma’s brains…”
I seethe inwardly, refusing to let him see me lash out, turning my head to look over my shoulder at his atrophied form. “I’ll return tonight,” I slowly say, “and if I don’t you know what happened.”
“That I will boy, which I will.” Master says smugly, nestling into a wide pillow, puffing on his pipe. “But I have no fear milad; I’ll see you tonight.”
“And how do you know that? The white blood in me makes me brave enough to do this?” I wryly ask.
He snorts. “No, it’s that black blood you have that makes you too cowardly to let yourself get killed.”
I stomp out of the room listening to his hoarse laughter, my blood roaring in my ears as I push past Marie and move to my room where I quickly throw on a cotton shirt and vest, kneeling only to strap on some leather sandals capable of putting up with the hot Virginia sun-heated ground. Grabbing the key to the house, I loop the thong necklace around my neck and storm past Marie, who is looking between me and up at the masters room, where he still cackles. I descend the stairs two at a time, moving past Jennifer, a younger slave that we had take over caring for the Master when he fell ill a few years ago.

Pushing out the heavy oaken door, I see the small covered black wood carriage that Master Morsely loved to tool about town in, a pair of black draft horses set to the bit and bridle with Thomas, an older dark-skinned slave with more wrinkles than wits, sitting in the driver’s seat, whip at the ready. He looks at me as the two white men, the sheriff and his deputy, turn from their conversation with him; he looks grateful not to have the attention on himself.

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