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Authors: Linda Spalding

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BOOK: The Purchase
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On his way to the auction, he was travelling alone, as he did not wish the children to take part in any such occasion, although, in the event that he came upon a runaway, how good it would be for them to witness Christian charity. The thought bore into his mind as he drove, that by purchasing a slave a man became part of an injury wrought not just on another human being but on the entire society. This he explained to the horses, speaking in gentle tones through the long hours of the journey, imagining that his dear Rebecca could also hear his words and
must agree with him as usual. It was only at such times, rare now, when he was alone, that he allowed himself to dwell on his departed wife. Privacy was required for this grief and now he indulged in it, seeing himself as a younger man standing at the foot of the winding staircase in Rebecca’s father’s house, forcing his eyes away from her rustling gown, which was steely and cool and made a noise like dry grasses against whatever it was that was underneath. Gracefully she came down the stairs as he closed his eyes and let himself drift, following Rebecca into her father’s parlour with a pounding heart while his mares pulled him along the narrow road to an event that was going to change several lives. He remembered the lift of Rebecca’s chin as she turned her back to pour him a cup of cold coffee. He had not known whether to stand or sit. His father was a Lancaster mason, a cutter of millstones. Daniel had been sent to find new customers among the Brandywine Friends, and knowing that, as he sipped the cold coffee, he thought he knew something else. He’d been sent to find a wife.

T
here were eight wagons and two buggies gathered at the roadside when Daniel dropped the reins. He felt dismal, knowing the amount of money he had brought and the variety of things he needed. He must choose carefully and wait for his price. He must guard his purchases. There were thieves on the border. Outlaws. Indians. There might be thieves here among the purchasers. A chunk of land was up for sale, along with house and furnishings and tools. Word had it that the young owner had died, leaving his wife and children in debt. Briefly, Daniel imagined himself the holder of such an empire. Then he remembered the humiliating sale of his own household goods and felt sorrow for the widow. He saw a wooden stage in the centre of the farmyard and ten or twelve men standing near it. Pulling at his coat sleeves, he took his first steps toward them. “Tennessee trader’s in a mighty hurry,” he heard someone say and looked up to see a man leaning on the fence, one boot on its bottom rail. “Could be good on us. Or not, dependin.” Daniel fed himself into the crowd, hoping that tools and equipment would be auctioned first, but there was a stir near the farmhouse where a group of slaves stood facing a wall.

The auctioneer wore a black hat and a jacket so shiny it might have been greased. His boots were oiled and the gloves he would wave during his display of wares were a bright shade of yellow.
“Gentlemen of Virginia,” he intoned in a voice that commanded all friendly and curious chatter to stop, “we are right close to our border here at the finest farm I’ve had the fortune to put up on offer. We are right here next to Tennessee, where chattel carry scars and bitterness such that it ruins them for work among honest men, but here in Virginia,” he went on without drawing a breath, “we sell only well-tended, healthy Virginia-born flesh. That is our law up here now. No more importation, do you see? Parents or grandparents may have made the harrowing journey from Africa. They may have made landfall in the tidewaters of Virginia or Charleston or the Caribe. More’n likely they got brought into New England is my suspicion, where we all know the most profit in black flesh is made. Here now, today … Come on up here close, gentlemen, and see for yourself some fine Virginia-raised merchandise.” The auctioneer threw his arms out and a stirring and moaning overtook the slaves.

Daniel remembered the song old Luveen used to sing.
There’s a betta world a’comin. Will you go along with me? Oh go along with me!
Once he’d thought of it, he found he could not banish the tune from his mind even as six faces peered out from the pen where they had been placed along with several cows and four sheep. He understood, in that instant, why Luveen had refused to come to Virginia although she had been with his children since they were born and with his wife from her birth to her death. Luveen had been a servant, decently paid and entirely free. This was something very different, something he had not quite imagined even when he listened to the exhortations of Quaker abolitionists. His mouth felt dry. He retreated to his wagon and stood by it, dismayed.
Will you go
 … 
along
 … 
with me
 … Still watching, in spite of himself, he saw a woman pulled up onto the stage. He saw the auctioneer open her dress, where there was an infant latched to her breast. Daniel was not
a man who had looked on bare arms or shoulders. He had never seen his own dear Rebecca’s entire self, but the dress opened like a wound and he stared now at a woman’s flesh.

The auctioneer declared that the girl was full of good seed and rich milk. “Jus you look here at this baby fat and male and worth an extra fifty dolla. Ima start the bid at a hunnert for this breeder.”

A bareheaded man standing close to Daniel spat a long stream of tobacco juice into the grass, knocking the dusty hat he held against his knee at the same time. “Ain’t so young by the look of her titties,” he shouted.

“Shut it up!” yelled another man amid other and worse complaints. The crowd was eager. They did not want to tarry or amuse themselves. Someone bid and then someone else and the girl was pulled off the stage while a man held her arm in his bunched-up fist.

Daniel watched a young man of sixteen or seventeen years get sold to the slave trader for two hundred and twenty dollars after he had been made to describe his talents. “Which the Lord says we must not waste,” the auctioneer reminded him, shaking a plump gloved finger. Having spoken, the young man was thereafter silent, never taking his eyes off the yellow gloves, never opening his mouth or closing his eyes for a minute.

Next a pale boy was brought up and two or three people roared out that he should not be on the block. “This lad’s Irish!” someone yelled.

“Here now, gentlemen!” shouted the auctioneer. “Settle your wigs and hear the facts. This lad is the property of the householder like all the rest. How much am I offered for this pretty houseboy?” the auctioneer curtsied flirtatiously. The men gathered below the stage could see the boy’s dark mother come up close and reach up to him. Daniel felt his throat close again but
a sound came out of it. He bent his head and moved forward.

The man who’d earlier spat turned to look at him. “Why don we let him go loose, is that it?” He smoothed his hair back with two fingers and put the dusty hat on his head. “But he don have true feelins like us, bein mixed with black. So let us get on with what we come here to do.”

Daniel sat through the auctioning of the boy’s mother, then, and he hated the men as they yelled up their bids but he told himself they would now get to the useful tools when a boy the size of Isaac climbed up on the stage without prodding. He was surely older than nine but no more than thirteen and he got up on the stage as if daring the men below to challenge his right to stand above them. From that height he stood looking down at the pink and white faces below as if he hoped to lock eyes with the one person in the crowd who dared to take charge of his fate – although if his fate can be charged to anything, thought Daniel, it can only be to God as He speaks through each one of us. It occurred to him then to pray for the boy but he did not know where to begin. Instead, he went on trying to organize his understanding of God’s plan and he felt his right arm go up as if pulled by a string.

There was sudden laughter. “Hey! Mister Quaker? Ain’t you wanta listen to the details before you bid?” someone hooted, and the laughter got louder and the right arm would not come down.

The auctioneer started the bidding at four hundred dollars. “And lookee over there to where I got my first offer! Somebody goin to raise it?” He joined the surrounding laughter, bobbing his head and showing teeth in his smile.

“No, no,” Daniel stuttered, trying to shake his head and yanking at his right sleeve with his left hand. “I haven’t got it,” he said, pulling the arm down forcefully as if it belonged to someone else.

The auctioneer in his shiny jacket, buttoned vest, and black hat had a face blazoned by sun or alcohol and he aimed it at Daniel, as if to inspect a man whose credit was in jeopardy. His hands in their yellow gloves made flourishes in front of his stomach. He walked to the edge of the stage and leaned out.

“Says he ain’t gotit!” the spitter of tobacco juice shouted.

“Got a fine pair of mares over yonder,” yelled another.

“Made the bid, dint he?”

“I saw it.”

The gangly boy stood on the stage without moving. He was watching his brother being put into coffles by the slave trader and, with another slave, marched away.

“His hand went up, it shore did!”

“For twice moren that nigger’s worth,” someone sneered while Daniel thought of his infant son, though he had no reason to connect the baby to this awful event. There was a pull on the back of his long Quaker coat. Then two men had hold of his arms and were guiding him off to one side of the crowd where there was a table and chair set under a tree. In order to make himself understood, Daniel enunciated carefully. “I have made an
error
.” More slowly, “A mistake. I must forfeit the bid.” Each word was a piece of gravel in his mouth because what kind of mistake is a hand raised up by the Lord, which it must have been?

“What cash you brung?” said one of the men, who chewed thoughtfully at a stick he held between his teeth and whose right eye was unfocused, as if it were coated with dust.

The second man said simply, “How much?”

Like most Quaker men, Daniel wore no beard and this, along with his outdated clothing, may have increased the antipathy of the men now gathering around him uttering threats. “I have some amount just over two hundred dollars,” he admitted quietly. “A little over, which I was told would buy me a plow
and farming tools for my new homeplace. Which is all I have come for today. And which represents my entire life savings.” A Quaker must never entail debt.

“Might have done so too,” said a man who seemed to bear a grudge, for he nudged at Daniel with a stick.

“Except that you are in for two times what you brung,” said another, holding up two fingers and rubbing them together.

A Quaker does not swear or take an oath. Daniel licked his lips. He had been driven from the refuge of his people, but his moral nature was unchanged. He looked at the two businessmen and swallowed the last saliva in his mouth. His dry lips parted. “I give you my word,” he said, biting back shame. “I will raise what I owe.” His mind was swinging. Where could he find such a sum?

“Ain’t no use ta me.” The auctioneer had arrived at the table. “I’ll take a mare,” he said hard and clear.

There was general assent. Yes, that’s it, then. Yes. Yes.

Daniel took a step closer to his wagon. It sat on the other side of the fence but he seemed to be shaking, legs and hips, as he forced his knees to bend, his legs to lift his feet. The two businessmen moved along beside him, focusing on a wagon that was as worthless to them as it was valuable to Daniel, and then gazing at the horses. “That chestnut is nice enough,” one said.

Daniel was partly glad because Mulberry was slightly lame and it would not do to send her off with a careless man. Moving to his more beloved mare, he touched her muzzle and breathed into it and promised her that he would redeem her, that she would not be taken from him for more than a few days. “Even if I have to sell my land,” he told her. He said to the auctioneer, “I give her only as mortgage on my debt.”

The auctioneer winked at the listeners, who were waiting for drama. “Fine. Fine. And with the lame mare you can get yourself
home at least,” he added with a note of benevolence. “The road to my place is marked out by old Eagle Rock when you come ta redeem.”

Daniel touched his right arm, which had betrayed him. He ran the criminal hand along his favourite mare’s warm flank. He put his head against her neck and again whispered his promise into her listening ear. By four o’clock that same afternoon, he was moving along the road behind Mulberry, who had been separated from Miss Patch as abruptly as the wiry boy in the back of the wagon had been separated from his brother and from everything else in his former life.

BOOK: The Purchase
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ads

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