Authors: Linda Spalding
he ride home was slow and silent. All three creatures grieved. The boy thought about jumping out but decided that he was better off with the quiet man who had paid too much for him than with a search party and its hounds. Daniel lifted the reins and cracked them in the air over Mulberry’s head to console her, but his own head was very low on his chest. He could not imagine how to free himself from the wretched situation he was in. What he had done.
“I have five children living in a lean-to,” he said into space. “I need to put up a house and get a crop in, which means plowing up a field that was never broken yet. And I have no tools. Which is what I came for. And no plow.”
Behind him, the boy said nothing.
Was it possible to ascribe blame? An arm had no mind; it was only part of a man. A man was only a small part of God. And had he not been led?
“Can you build?” Daniel shouted over the noise of hooves and the sound of blowing, starting rain that came as cold, almost as ice.
“I ken not,” came the boy’s voice, sullen and forbidding, as if Daniel had taken the last friend that voice had ever loved in this world, which is just what Daniel had done by not bidding for his brother, who must be in a coffle on his way to Tennessee.
“You have planted.” Daniel made it a fact.
The long silence that followed seemed to go on until the sun dropped down behind trees and made its reflected shine on the wet black road. “I brung up pigs,” the boy said at last.
Daniel regretted the afternoon with such intensity that he decided it was his father’s warning that had doomed him to shame:
A place of slavery
a place where no paid labour is to be had
… If I had been innocent of such warnings, thought Daniel, my hand could not have been raised even by the Lord. He thought of Christ telling his disciples that one of them would deny Him … before the cock crows. He thought that Christ had created Peter’s downfall and that it might be best if he should never see his children again. It might be that he should drive on and on with the lame horse and the purchased boy and his shame and apprehension. What hope was there for a world in which earthly and heavenly parents created the holes their children fell into? He should never have come to the auction, where it was certain that his right hand would be raised up in protest or diligence, who knew which?
Had he raised it himself? No, he had not. It was beyond his imagination, this notion of the vile purchase he had made. A human being! A child! And yet, he was now the owner of a boy who could not be given freedom until Miss Patch had been redeemed. Without the boy, how would he ever make enough profit to bring his horse back? He had not a cent in the world. He had no tools and no way to build. Somehow he and this stranger must find, between them, a way to raise two hundred dollars by making with their four hands something valuable and worthy. And it must be quick! They must do it fast. Tobacco, he said to himself, is too slow. And so is wheat. But everything would be slow now, since it was taking twice as long to get back home without a second horse and the dark was falling hard
with fresh, cold rain and he had purchased a growing boy for the trade of two hundred dollars and that much needed horse, which was, in and of itself, a sickening thing.
Certainly, this boy was not what he had bargained for, not that he had bargained in the first or even the second place. No, this boy was not what he needed and he at last began to pray. As usual, the prayer was without words, was even mentally silent. Then words sprang up of themselves:
Thee did not choose me, but I chose thee that thee should go and bear fruit
When she’d first shown Daniel into that long-ago parlour, his dear wife Rebecca had pointed him to a straight-backed chair, then gone quickly to a silver urn, poured cold coffee into a cup, and offered it without apology. “Luveen?” she’d called out. “Go tell my father he has a visitor from Lancaster. Someone
something.” There was such disdain in her voice. Daniel had simply sat. Several minutes had simply passed. A piece of cake was brought into the room by the tall black woman who had met Daniel at the door and he had almost stood, unused as he was to the company of servants. The dog had lifted a paw, and behind her servant’s back Rebecca had surely winked. In the wagon, with its one horse and its sullen slave, Daniel remembered the wink and wondered what Rebecca would think of him now, parking his crippled horse under the rain-drenched trees with a tired wagon and its unwelcome cargo. He climbed down. There was a loaf of bread and Daniel split it and took his fill from the water flask, then handed it to the boy. “What is your name?”
“Don’t you have a name?”
Daniel tried to remember the story of Paul saving Philemon’s slave, Onesimus. The man is now a Christian, Paul had written
to the runaway slave’s owner. So I send him back and hope that you receive him as a brother. Daniel hoped he was more Paul than Philemon. He said, “I shall call you Simus. I have my jacket that will do as my bed. Please take the blanket.” He climbed back into the wagon.
The boy was holding the flask without putting it to his lips. He took the blanket that was handed down to him. His brother must by now be on his way to some demon place fastened to a coffle and driven to a shed to be branded. Onesimus looked at the ground. He would not take the water but gave the flask back up to Daniel. Any slave known to put his mouth on the rim of a white man’s cup would catch the whip. What man, white or black, didn’t know that?
Daniel thought he heard the moon rise up through the trees as if it were knocking against the branches. He thought he heard Miss Patch, her tender whinny, far away. What was he doing here in the darkness alone with a boy who meant nothing to him, a boy he had inadvertently purchased? He wanted to run back up the road on his own two feet and take back what belonged to him. But he would have to find two hundred dollars first and then he would have to find that accursed auctioneer. In his pocket, he had a receipt for his mare and on the receipt was the auctioneer’s name. Now the jacket was stretched over him and he was stretched out in the bed of his wagon as if he had fallen into it. Under the wagon, the boy was a shadow, doubling him.
Thee did not choose me, but I chose thee
. Daniel wondered what such a boy would dream. He thought that if his arm had been lifted by the inner voice that sometimes guided him, he might perhaps be doing God’s will.
They left the stopping place long before dawn, with Mulberry finding her way by feel or scent. The moon sank at last and the sun began its rise and the two went on in the wagon without
anything more to eat although the lame horse had replenished herself. When they came to the road that led to his homeplace, Daniel turned. “It is a few miles more. Will you not sit up here with me?”
The boy leaned against the side of the wagon, resting his head on its edge and rubbing his eyes. Mulberry went on pulling the wagon over the road, which was steep now and hard to climb.
ary was watching sparrows. They would soon make a nest and lay pretty eggs.
“Yea, the sparrow hath found a house,”
she said to them, although she couldn’t remember the rest. Then she spoke other words. “I
watch and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top
. Psalm 102:7,” she told the sparrows. “The other is Psalms something or other.” The sparrow’s house would have fledglings and in time the fledglings would flutter from branch to branch. A short time ago, she had watched baby Joseph learning to crawl, lurching and pocketing into the bed tick or onto a quilt spread out on the dirt floor. Now she watched the birds and thought how necessary it was to have parents, both male and female. While the father kept guard, the mother taught the babies what they needed to know just as her own mama would have taught baby Joseph the ways of this provoking world, with all its habits and contradictions. I watch and am as a sparrow while Papa is married to someone who does not belong with us, someone who had no mother to teach her, someone with no proper upbringing. She put her head down and smelled the new grass. She watched the sparrows.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself
. That was it. Her eyes felt small and she closed them and fell asleep.
So it was Ruth, pacing the floor of the lean-to with baby Joseph, who heard the wagon round the bend and ran out to
the road to take in Daniel’s situation at a glance. She noticed the absence of Miss Patch and the presence of a boy resting his head on the side of the wagon as if he didn’t care to look around.
“Here is our help,” Daniel called out.
Ruth looked at Daniel’s wet, mud-spattered coat and brushed her hand on it as he stood, allowing her hand to be on him.
“Get down now,” Daniel said to the boy in the mixture of irritation and shame that would mark his communication with this purchased human being.
Ruth plucked at the coat again. Even as his employee, she had avoided the problem of naming him, since Quakers used no Mister or Missus but called each other by both Christian and family name. In the beginning, then, she could not say, “Mister Dickinson, do you desire coffee?” And now it was impossible to call him simply Daniel when the other children referred to him as Papa or Pap. Instead, she sought to move his mind from its dark concerns by adopting his antiquated verbal usage. “Come see what I done for
,” she said, turning quickly, like the girl she really was, to run across the matted grass and mud, swishing her skirt as she went.
Glad to be quit of the wagon and the sight of Mulberry’s heaving flanks, Daniel came along and as he followed Ruth, he was followed in turn by the boy, who had climbed out of the wagon and wiggled away from the younger children’s stares.
Mary was dreaming of a dog and an owl. The dog catches the owl and carries it in his mouth. The owl has a broken wing. She opened her eyes and got to her feet, brushing her dress with nervous hands. “Who is that, Papa?”
Daniel shook his head. “Call him Simus and leave him be, Mary Amelia. He is in the hands of God.” Daniel could not understand his own irritation. He looked from Mary to Ruth, who was pointing at a hoed-up place marked by ten broken sticks
poked into the ground. She said, “Here is my garden all planted next to where we should put the house.”
Daniel lashed out, “I gave thee no seeds! I made no decision about the house. And this ground is too wet for planting! Any seeds planted here will rot before they sprout!” He wanted to shake his child bride. “How could thee take such advantage?” He put his face close to hers. “I plan a Virginia kitchen separate from my house that will not be here but under the sycamore trees as anyone with any sense could –” He stopped himself, noticing the watching eyes of the purchased boy, and shuddered. Ruth held herself straight, but the day had darkened for her and she would have unhoed the sacred ground of her own first garden if Mary had not been watching.
“How many seeds did thee waste?” Daniel asked, forgetting himself again.
The boy stood back, but he listened. And that night, Ruth lay in the bed full of Daniel’s children and decided that if the Lord had saved her with this marriage, she was still not altogether in the right with Him. Not after what Mary had seen and the boy had heard. Ruth had her pride and she would not forget the injury it had suffered. If there was a tax of shame to be paid on safety, she had paid in full. Outside, the seeds she had put in the ground were enlarging and complicating their vegetal lives. God made us pure and simple and we make ourselves complicated. This was Ruth’s thought. Now she, too, would divide herself – stem and leaf. Outer face and inner heart. Never would she let these Dickinsons see her weakness again. She would start by taking a more comfortable position on this crowded bed, and she reached for Benjamin and pushed her face into his curls and smelled the sour sweet of his scalp. This child had become her solace – the one bit of love she could take for herself. Jemima was restless, a light sleeper, a drooler. Awake, she stuck close to
Mary. Isaac was aloof, and the baby lay in the cradle whimpering or asleep. In the almshouse, when they came in very young, they never survived. Maybe Joseph was like that, like a lamb with no will. She’d been five when she got to that place of foundlings. Five will survive, Matron always said, and so she had.
Outside, not far from the newly planted seeds, Daniel and Onesimus were awake most of the night. Daniel now had the entire responsibility for this stranger’s life. It had been given unto him. Unless, he thought in the moon-dappled darkness, he had raised his arm up for his own benefit. “Thee would harken always to thy inner voice,” his father had often said to him. “But can thee be sure it does not simply echo thy secret wish?” Perhaps there was no accident in his purchase of Onesimus, no right hand of God but only self-interest. He was lying in the wagon again, comfortable enough on some of the family bedding, but he got out of the wagon and stood beside it in his woollen stockings. Having never owned anything in his life, he had paid for these good six acres of trees and water and dirt, but he had also bought a boy who was lying awake in a rolled-up blanket. He could not see a face, but the blanket was human enough, showing the shape of arms and back, head and legs. Daniel walked around and around the boy-shaped blanket. He brought back the farewell argument with his father in which he had stated his plan to labour for himself. “I fear,” his father had sighed, “thee will be tempted to the vile practice so cherished in the southern states.” And Daniel, desiring to point out the error in his father’s predictions, had expressed his abhorrence of human bondage. “And what of Ruth Boyd?” His father had asked, scowling. “Did thee not make a contract to keep her indentured?”