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Authors: Linda Spalding

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BOOK: The Purchase
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“Well then, Simus, when our corn comes in, you will pull the fodder and sell it. There are plenty of people with animals to feed. We have only the one cow.”

“Lessen you git some pigs. You gon need meat come the cole nex yer.” The lying-down boy braced himself on his elbows and looked at Daniel, who was crouched at the entrance of his log pile shelter.

“How would I feed pigs when I barely feed my children?” Daniel got lower in the crouch and peered around the canvas door that Simus said a bear could go through or a snake. Suck my blood and bite my head, he said. Now he screwed up his face. “Hog fatten hissef up on acorn and hickry. He root in dis wood. Don you know it?”

“That does not bring back my horse.”

“Pigs can be sole when fat.”

“You could look after them? Even while the leg heals?” Daniel began to imagine the boy out in the world, working his way along from one job to another. Simus would be free and he would be the cause of it. Slavery need not be a lifelong sentence.

The boy said, “I kin do with Isaac hep. And make pegs men-time. And sell off meat come fall. Sell off meat to free Onesimus.” He grinned.

Daniel had not much insight into the raising and killing of animals, but he thought he had an asset in Simus, after all. He went off in the wagon that afternoon, taking Isaac and Benjamin because it was good, at such times, to be surrounded by enthusiasm and a blessing not to have to meditate in solitude while branches and shadows converged on his mind. At the trading post owned by Silas Murray, he was told of a farmer who had piglets. It would be a long ride.

Virgil had written of horses and dogs and bees and cows but he’d said nothing of pigs. He’d also said nothing of daughters, and this was another subject on which Daniel needed advice. Lately, Mary had seemed distracted. Perhaps it was her age. Perhaps she was missing her schoolmates. Perhaps it was time to put her to serious work teaching Isaac, who needed schooling. Even Benjamin was ready for an alphabet. While he considered this, Daniel allowed the two boys to sit next to him on the riding board, although it was somewhat dangerous. Children had been
known to fall off. But Isaac and Benjamin were soon bouncing and shouting and helping him hold the reins as Mulberry picked up her pace. Her ears flicked and twitched at the boys’ laughter and at the trees singing on both sides. Trees do sing, Daniel thought, being full of birds at the first signs of spring.

At sundown, they came to a cabin that stood alone with no fields discernible. Daniel saw girded trees but no clearing.

“It be the Indian technique,” said the owner of the cabin, whose grey hair hung limp on his shoulders and whose face, under a coonskin cap, looked like something known to the elements. “And the dangdest thing,” he went on. “For as the girdled tree takes its time to die, it sure do loose its leaves so plantin can be done right underneath without the bother of cuttin limbs and choppin trunks and pullin out stumps. It saves a heap a human labour.” Taking Daniel and the boys around to the back of his cabin, he aimed his forefinger at a pen with a sow and ten piglets. “They be ready for any leavins you create,” he said, slapping Daniel on the back and patting Isaac’s thin shoulder. “Yep, they eat up our sins, for sure. Pig be man’s best friend as I make it out. Not dog. Unless you like to eat dog.” He gave a hearty laugh and poked at the sow with his boot.

Isaac saw that the poke was friendly and he grinned. He had taken a liking to this wild man and his unwild pigs who ate up sin.

“Watch out! They savour flesh.” The old man laughed again.

All the coins Daniel had brought were borrowed from Ruth and he intended to pay them back even before he paid his other debts. “Ruth,” he had said, neglecting, for once, to use her full name, “when you were in my employ, there was some payment. Is there any of it left?”

Ruth had gone to the homespun pouch in which she carried everything she owned. In it there was a comb, a needle, a dish
with a picture of a ship, eight hairpins, and a linen envelope. Her eyes had been bright as she opened the envelope. It held coins in the amount of five precious dollars. It was more than Daniel had expected, but he took all of it.

Now the two men made a business of quibbling. The old man was no crook, but he took Daniel for a man with no understanding of pig value. Daniel knew that Quakers were sometimes defrauded of their money since they were unable to swear to the fact of theft in court. A Quaker cannot take an oath. Nevertheless, while the boys put hands into the pen and stroked soft, pink, shivery bellies and backs, he paid out the whole of Ruth’s saved-up money, rubbing each coin as he brought it out of the linen envelope and thinking of Rebecca, who would be shaking her head if she could see him in this circumstance. At night he heartily missed the feel of her under the quilts. Those long legs sheathed in cotton. Sleeping in the wagon alone, he wrestled with the thought of it, trying to understand how the source of such comfort could be rotting in a grave, trying not to picture it. For twelve years he had come home to her every day with a sense of accomplishment. Their expenses were few, a bit of rent money on the house and their supplies, and she was always pleased by his efforts. There was no need to save. In a Quaker community, prices were fair; tradesmen were honourable; children were taught to trust everyone. But without community, nothing was easy to understand. Now, when Isaac and Ben climbed back into the wagon, they had four piglets loose between them. The wagon began to move and the old man called out, “I hear tell Mister Shoffert’s land is going up for sale.”

Daniel showed no interest. The Shoffert land abutted his own near the boundary he shared with Jester Fox. Driving away, he took another look at the old man’s trees. Most of them had been
stripped to the bone by the width of a fist. “Look, boys,” he said to his sons, pointing at the girding, “and see that this man is growing his food without clearing so much as a garden plot. Now I ask, what nourishment can he expect?”

A
piglet is a shivering, rooting, ornery thing and heartbreaking to its beholder. When four of them were carried down to Simus in the timber lot, his face broke into the first smile Mary had seen there. She had spent the afternoon telling him a story. “There was a father who loved his two children,” she had begun it, “although both of them were boys.” With that, she had wanted Simus to laugh because sons are a bother and brothers are worse. Then she remembered his brother lost to the Tennessee slave trader and felt sorry and said that the father in the story loved his sons and gave both of them coins and one of them was very good but the other ran away and spent every cent.

“Jes like Onesimus in de Bible run. And Mister Aeneus for his place.”

I shall be a schoolteacher, Mary thought, because she was proud of her pupil’s quick response. She was glad to have an effect on him, to brighten his view of the world. It was surely compassion, what she was showing, and she was enjoying every bit of it. I will go back to Pennsylvania as soon as I can, where people appreciate an education, she said to herself while Simus sat with his injured leg propped up on a log, his face full of concentration. He was whittling a knot of oak that kept his hands occupied. Inside an hour, he had made the knot into a head with a fine-featured face. He had carved onto the head
curls that moved with the grain of the wood, and when Mary stopped her story to admire it, he said, “It be yourn if yun sew it a body, Miss Mary.”

Mary did not like dolls. She, who had a new baby brother and toddling sister, thought dolls were lifeless things. Who would dress up a piece of wood when there was a real baby crying to be carried and a little sister in the hammock waiting to be pushed? “This girl is of the oak race,” she said. “Carve her out some hands and feet so she can feel and walk.”

Simus rubbed the nose and eyes and chin of the doll’s head with his thumb. “Oak race,” he repeated, and he learned about the father’s love for his two sons although one of them was prodigal and wondered about his lost brother. Then the four piglets arrived, carried down by Daniel and Isaac and Benjamin, and the smile unfolded itself. It was easy enough to build an enclosure for little pigs, Simus said, for they had only a few inches of legs to climb up and out with. What worried him was fortification against bears and wolves and snakes. He decided to keep the pigs with him at night. “For ta grow fatn make us fat too.”

In this fashion, spring began to announce itself. Geese and ducks returned from farther south, filling the sky with noise. Robins pecked at the ground, bushes and trees dressed themselves in bright colours, wild flowers sprang out of the fields, and the smell of the land was inviting. The sparrows, as Mary had predicted, built little nests and laid pretty eggs, though the robin eggs were best. Ruth gathered dandelion greens. Jemima carried the oak doll around by hanging on to a leg. Joseph began to crawl more evenly on the warming ground, and Daniel bought, with his two remaining warrants, a hundred and seven acres of Michael Shoffert’s rolling land. “Most of it I will sell,” he told the family. “Jester Fox will be keen, as the Shoffert land surrounds him on two sides.”

“And another side is us,” Ruth said with some satisfaction.

“With Frederick Jones on the fourth, Jester Fox is surrounded,” Daniel agreed, then added, “I must make him a fair price.”

On a hot day in May he walked the perimeter of the new land, touching the rough trunks of elms and sugar maples. Then he examined the lands’ interior, where there was a small, deep pond and a locust tree so tall and dark and thorny it rose above the others like an ominous sovereign. Its furrowed, scaly bark had untold history stored in its pores, but its branches bore fragrant flowers now, in the spring. St. John’s Bread, the tree was called because the saint had survived on locust pods and honey in the wilderness, and Daniel remembered that locust pods had also fed the prodigal son in his servitude, and they had been fed to pigs in Virgil’s time. Historic tree! He would reach up, pluck a few flowering stems, and carry them home to the cabin as proof of his purchase. With his arms extended, he wondered if the old tree had stood there before human beings ever came to this meadow, if it had stood over the migrating herds he’d described to the children on their long journey across Virginia. In the autumn, the pods would be musical instruments played to the other trees and the thought of such a rattling symphony made Daniel laugh and the sound of his laugh blew out against the surrounding silence.

The Shoffert place had no access by road. And it will be the devil to clear, Daniel thought irreverently, but Shoffert had bought this land to sell and Daniel had obliged him with his last two warrants. Shoffert would use Daniel’s warrants to buy another piece of land to sell and each sale would make a profit, which was the way of the new frontier. He touched the rough trunk of the tree. Perhaps the pleasure he felt derived from his
solitude, he thought, turning his horse along a rise that was furred with pines. Even as a child, he had been always crowded, always admonished. He remembered a table, a line of heads, hands kept firmly in lap, tongues behind hard, clenched teeth. He remembered eyes turned down. He so seldom thought of his sisters or brothers or childhood friends. Friends. Every breath. Friends. Right-thinking, dutiful. Not like Daniel, whose livelihood now depended on the milking of cows and the raising of pigs, which, though not ruminating, are said to be a link between the herbivorous and carnivorous animals. He laughed again. The omnivorous pig was apparently capable of converting almost anything into nutriment, according to his manual. And although in the Mosaic Law the pig is condemned as unclean, there was apparently no domestic animal so profitable. Daniel’s sows might bear two litters in a year, the breeding seasons being April and October. He leaned forward to pat Mulberry’s damp neck and decided to butcher the boar in late September and to breed the sows to a different male, and it was good to think of the profit to be made in flesh, profit that would help bring back his chestnut mare, also made of flesh.

“That floor floats on the air,” Ruth said one afternoon, pointing at a drawing in the manual. Now Daniel saw that book reading was not simply a matter of letters made into words. It was a whole way of looking at symbols and understanding them as such. He sighed and put down the post he was holding. Six months had passed since he had purchased Lot #3 in Jonesville, and yet, against the time needed for Ruth to grow into adulthood, this long winter and spring would be as nothing. He rubbed his finger across the words as if to erase them. “Who is watching after my children?”

Ruth thrust out her lower lip, turned fast, and walked away. There was no need for such investigation on Daniel’s part. Baby spent his afternoons in a hammock she had strung up between trees. If insects bothered him, she wrapped a piece of cheesecloth around the hammock and hoped for a breeze. Sometimes Jemima liked to rock him, although Benjamin had to be kept from rocking him too hard. Which sometimes she overlooked because Benjamin was her favourite and she had a lenient way with him. He was the only one of the children ever to come to her. During “the crossing,” as she thought of it, he had leapt into her lap and since then he had clung to her, even nuzzling up against her in the bed at night and staying by her every morning. But at noon, he and Isaac went down to the timber lot with Mary, delivering dinner to the boy who lay on his back with his broken leg up on a log. And what a waste of a horse the trade for that boy had been.

BOOK: The Purchase
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