For Christ's sake, man, I said, for
the good Lord’s holy sake.
He sucked whimpering back into his throat,
looked at me as if to beg my pardon. I looked back and then
his eyes widened as his mount snorted, pawed the road, commenced
a loose, abundant shitting, the steam from which mushroomed
and fouled the air…
So there we were, thirteen men and a black
boy in a fog on a cool Missouri morning in the year of our Lord
18 and 70, all of us like players on a stage waiting for direction
while horseshit fouled the air….
I was not in the best of spirits. I'd been
awakened before dawn, called from my bed and the warmth of Madeline's
curved body. The bottom of my feet hurt. I had calluses the
size of dollars just below my toes, hard flesh that I shaved
with a razor but which returned with the persistence of bad
dreams. The doc said he could cut them out, but for a couple
of weeks I'd have to stay off my feet, not easy to do for a
In one of the elm trees along the road, a bird
began to sing– two notes, exuberant. I turned, as did the killer,
as did my deputies, the sniveler and the shitting horse, toward
the sweet sound's source, but it was hidden. Like mystery, I
thought, and blinked as the killer caught my eye and folded
arms across his chest. Deliberately, like an ill-mannered child,
like a man at the end of his patience.
I drew my gun. I'd given him an order in the
presence of my deputies, and he could not ignore it without
consequence. I was about to tell him this when the bird song
stopped abruptly, and I blinked again, first at the depth of
silence, then at the killer's voice.
I found them, he said. This the one
I told you about, and I followed his finger to the first
in that line of horses, a grizzled granddaddy, sway-backed,
one season removed from being sent to pasture, his sole duty
the spilling of seed into wide-legged, steaming mares.
Now there's a future, ain't it, I thought,
and I looked to where the killer pointed, at the horse's right
front foot. It was monstrous, twice the size it should have
been. I shook my head. Just five days ago I'd told this boy
you couldn't pin murder on a body based on nothing more than
a print in a muddy road, and I was about to tell him again when
he reached behind him. My heart dropped; I heard my deputies
grope for weapons, I heard the hammers cock, I cocked my own.
I'm thinking how stupid, how careless I'd been; if he'd a second
gun, he could have had a third, and I tried to slow down, think
clearly. This boy in front of me, cold-blooded killer, and at
my service farm hands, cowboys down on their luck, drifters,
all unseasoned, all but the sniveler deputized for the princely
sum of fifty cents a day.
Hold your fire, I called. Don't shoot,
and all the time I'm thinking, Please, Lord, not here, not at
the hands of a grief crazed colored killer, broke as the day
I was born, and then I jumped, spooked, as out of the fog beneath
that big foot horse's belly, a black bird rose, red slash on
its wing like fire. I watched it glide through a head-sized
opening in the waiting wall of trees.
Was that the bird who'd done the singing?
Don't try it son, I called. Don't
make a bad case worser. I aimed my gun, and my deputies
held in readiness their weapons. The killer looked at us.
I want, he said, to show you something.
Whatever it is, move slow, I said, and
his hand appeared, from his fingers falling what I thought at
first was water. It wasn't water. It was a chain, a silver dollar
at the end.
I took this off a renegade, he said.
It belonged to my brother.
I was tired; it came upon me suddenly, joined
hands with my aching feet.
I know what you've gone through, I said.
But you need to understand I got no way of knowing who took
what from who.
He stared at me. A space inside me filled with
the yearning to be at home, in bed wrapped around my Madeline,
feet raised to ease the throb. I wanted to have this boy in
a cell in Sedalia, his fate in a judge's hand. Times weren't
good for lawmen. For weeks white men, still crazed that the
south had lost the war, had roamed the county, their mission
to kill every colored they came across. And now this boy…. I
glanced to where the red-winged bird had vanished.
Why would I want to frame these men?
the boy said. Why would I kill for no reason?
That ain't for me to figure, I answered.
You take that up with the judge.
You know what he said to me then? That any
white man who'd done what he had would have been a hero for
avenging his family....
I swallowed the hollow in my gut, the loss
that for twenty years refused to leave me. I was the last white
man to be accused of judging by the color of one's skin.
This ain't got nothing to do with black
or white, I said.
He looked at me and asked for what I thought
Yes, he said, water.
At first I thought his tone was insolent, said,
you know what water is, don't you? But I couldn't tell.
I hated the way coloreds did that– hid what they felt, left
you guessing. I imagined giving him something he couldn't
hide– the pain as I smashed his mouth with my pistol butt, and
I'd have done it if I could have read his eyes. But I couldn't,
and his face, black as burnt rock, as the dried blood of brothers,
would tell me nothing.
Somebody give him water, I said, and
the deputies shifted, and then stood as if in stupor.
Jesus, I whispered. How fortunate I
was to be a sheriff. I got to chase down a neighbor, a grief
struck crazed killer of a colored boy. I got to listen to his
raving. I got to lead men with the collective intelligence of
toads and all this for the pittance that I'm paid.
I understood the white men. They wouldn't use
a canteen a colored had drunk from less they risk contamination,
although I'd seen some share water with their dogs.
But the coloreds weren't moving either.
There were two in my posse, one, whose name
I couldn't recall, was maybe twenty. The second was ten years
older, broad-shouldered; a rope held up his trousers. His name
was Julian and he lived by haunting farms and cattle pens, the
blacksmith's shop, Sedalia's one hotel, for what work he could
find. It had been eight years since he'd arrived out of the
south on a dust swept Sunday, newly freed, dazed and disconnected….
Julian, I said, Give him water.
Frowning, Julian dismounted. He held his canteen
out; the black boy took it, drank and wiped his mouth. When
he moved to return the vessel, Julian held his hands up, shook
his head. The boy shoved the canteen toward him; Julian stepped
Whether it was anger or disappointment in the
colored boy's eyes, I couldn't say. I saw Julian's chest as
it rose and fell, and when he stepped away a second time, the
boy raised his arm and flung the canteen toward the woods. It
spun, stayed in the air longer than it should have. I heard
the thump it made when it landed….
Julian had his head turned; the boy stared
at him, in his eyes his father's distance. You'd have thought
tension would mark the scene– the disregard for property, armed,
untrained men, a killer given to provocation– but it was peaceful.
And in that peace I said to my shaken deputies, Put up your
guns, and when they did, I holstered mine. I swung from
my horse and told the boy to put his hands out, and I went to
him and tied his hands. He wouldn't look at me, but I smelled
him, warm, a hint of smoke, and what I'd thought was blood on
his shirt was the still wet juice of some berry….
Then a deputy and I helped him onto his horse,
and he took deep breaths in the way men breathe before distasteful
action. I ordered one man to fetch the killers' weapons, another
to lead the horses. The horses numbered four, and I said to
the boy, Now, take us to the bodies.
He turned in the road and we followed and at
our several movements birds burst from trees, handfuls of dark,
wing snaps like faint applause. We went a ways, and the boy
said, Here, and we left the road and wound through trees.
We rode until we came to a clearing and there were the new graves
paved with stone. For a while we sat and gazed upon their swellings,
and then the frail man gulped and began to grieve again. The
deputies looked away; the black boy coughed and turned his head,
as if he, too, was offended. He, fresh from the ambush of strangers
whose guilt had yet to be determined, four men around a fire
in the nighttime peace of God's green earth. And never a warning,
no question of who they were, or where they'd come from, just
he in his blood lust necessity for revenge taking lives because
lives from him had been taken.
And I thought, what manner of boy is this?
Why hadn't years of civilization weaned the savage from him?
I stared at him, dark and small and slumped
against the fog-bound morning, and for the first time since
he'd come into my custody, his name was in my head, as was his
The father was Ellis Hart. In Virginia he'd
been a slave, but when he rolled into Pettis County that second
time, gaunt with grief and disappointment, he was free. His
destination was the two hundred acres of farmland given to him
by William, his former master (the deed to which, along with
freedom papers, was in his left hip pocket). When Ellis arrived
at the three-room farmhouse, he rubbed dizziness from his eyes
and went inside where he faced the tasks of making a living
and raising three boys without a wife.
The date was Tuesday, April 12th, 1857, four
years before the war began, twelve since the colored players
had been driven from Sedalia. As was its custom, Sedalia's small,
free black population opened its arms to Ellis, only to fall
back, seared by the heat of his rejection. In response, Black
folks fanned themselves, drank some water, and let him be, figuring
his behavior came from something unfortunate that life had done
to him. What that was, they wouldn't know until six years later,
when Ellis finally told them.
There were, of course, things he never told,
one of which was that his youngest had undergone a name change.
This took place on the journey up from Virginia on the morning
after the dream Ellis had of black boys huddled beneath a bruised
and purple sky, heads hooded in a way that made them faceless.
Although two of his sons, Peter and Seth, were there, his youngest
wasn't. But he was coming, the youngest, and what he'd bring
would wash anger from the sky and inspire the boys to reveal
When he awoke, excited by the dream, Ellis
scrambled to his feet, only to bump against a lightheadedness
so empty it closed his eyes. He sat on the hard ground in the
shadow of his wagon, careful not to move until the feeling passed,
after which he roused his children. When they were sufficiently
awake, he gripped the shoulders of his puzzled six year old.
"I name you Ellison," he said. "You're special.
You'll bring to others something to do."
The boy looked at him. Morning glistened in
his father's deep gray eyes. "My name William," the boy said.
"No. You used to be William. You're Ellison,
"Because you are," he said. "Because I said
He wasn't looking at Ellison when he said this;
he was looking west, away from the rising sun, thinking of the
man he'd come to loathe, the one for whom his youngest had been
In 1863, still suffering from dizziness, Ellis
joined the Union side and went to fight a war from which he
didn't return. Three years later, his youngest, who'd shown
nothing to suggest he was special, persuaded his brothers to
hire him out to Obediah Ogden, Sedalia's cattle broker, in whose
employ the twelve year old learned to rope and ride. Back then
one might have guessed that Ellison would end up as a cowboy,
helping to shape that myth from whose future renderings he'd
be excluded, but he didn't, not for distaste of that profession's
work or wages (which he had), but for the unlikeliest of agents:
The scream issued one day from the throat of
the man who kept Obediah's books, and once it began, it threatened
to last forever, enduring until the bookkeeper finally managed
to inhale the breath that killed it. Then he called, "Whoa,
whoa, now," (his voice demanding for a man in his position)
and leaned back at an angle that raised his front chair legs.
For a moment his right hand clawed at nothingness; then it drew
in the air what some said were spirals, but what others insisted
were circles, the circumferences of which progressively widened
until the limits of his reach. There, face the color of good
tomato sauce, he halted. "Paul," he growled, "Paul Simon," then
sighed and closed his eyes. With that his chair legs fell to
strike the floor like pistol shots, and he dove, bristle-of-a-white
beard first against his desk where he lay shuddering, wreathed
by cash and sheets of yellow paper.
When he was still, shit stink rose into the
This unhappy event took place in the autumn
of Ellison's seventeenth year, late on an October afternoon
bathed with light the color of recently invented steel. In a
line that had kept its order during the incident were men weary
from the week and shaken that a good Christian would choose
to call his own name as he expired. This breach dominated post-partum
conversation until one of the workers suggested a more pressing
question: now that the bookkeeper was dead, who would pay them?
Ellison, near the back of the line, driven
by impulse he couldn't explain, had stepped forward, ordered
two reluctant men to move the body to the floor, another to
fetch a blanket, a fourth to go for Mr. Ogden who was inspecting
a herd that had just come in from Texas.
The men were white. They didn't so much as
blink as they did the black boy's bidding, and Ellison saw this,
and in the midst of seeing, as he organized the desk top, retrieved
the scattered money and began to pay the workers, he thought
of his father and the prophecy in which he'd not believed.
Had his father been right? Was he special?
In bed that night, curled around his wife's
warm butt, the sheriff told how Ellison had stepped into the
space made by Paul Simon's unfortunate departure, and how, as
a consequence, the boy now kept the cattle broker's books. The
sheriff delivered the story while at the edge of hiccups that
never came, aware that a tumescence caused by his wife's heat
and pressure advanced between his thighs. To slow that escalation,
and so prolong the pleasure, he let his thinking drift– to the
flat, slick blue-gray of evening light, to the complexity of
unexpected endings– but his mind, as if it had one of its own,
flew to the player's daughter. Numb with two decades worth of
regret, he recalled her wet straw smell, her father's aura as
he strode the stage; in his commanding walk and gesture the
weaving of magical illusion, and he remembered two longings,
one to stride like the father, the other to be with the daughter,
if just to touch her hand…
It was another life, before his feet hurt.
What in the day's events brought her to him, redolent with loss?
When he couldn't resolve that mystery, the
sheriff turned back to the subject of Ellison, whose actions
that day he'd found admirable. That was what caused the almost
hiccup feeling; he wasn't used to thinking of black boys in
that way, and if his wife (who was subtly increasing the pressure
against his groin), had turned to see his eyes, she'd have found
the surprise that would be there two years later when he told
what the black boy had done….
She said, "Don't be silly." She
meant well. After all, she was my mother. She really thought
simple warnings would do the trick. And reassurance, unequivocal,
absolute. "You will never be lost in a forest," she said. Lost—as
in, even your mother can't find you. "And you won't have to
eat caterpillars." I had seen a movie with two children, a boy
and a girl, who were lost and ate caterpillars to survive. Somehow
they made a fire and toasted slugs like foul marshmallows on
a stick. Bright with slime, those caterpillars coiled themselves
through my dreams. Endlessly I chewed clump after rubber clump.
My waking appetite vanished; she dosed me with yellow tonic
which didn't help.
She said, "No one gets leprosy
in New York." But a leper might take the subway, he might be
on his way to the doctor with his whole leper family (I never
went to the doctor alone). You got leprosy from touching lepers
or even a place where lepers had touched. I learned this from
my Father Damien book. So if they held a pole on the subway
and you brushed against that pole, you'd get it. Then you would
have to leave your mother and live in a special leper colony,
and your nose and your fingers would rot and fall off. "That
is ridiculous," she said.
When the man down the hall tried to kidnap
me, she said, "Don't you have better things to worry about?"
Good, better, best– of course there was other stuff: spiders,
injections, arithmetic, quicksand. The Tuesday hot lunch at
school, flaps of roast beef with juice like blood. For a while,
though, kidnapping topped my list. He offered cookies and petting
his cat, but I wasn't fooled. One of his eyes was milky blank.
In the elevator he'd ask me to press the button, so I could
tell he needed to kidnap my kind of person, a girl blessed with
average sight. From the outside his door was like ours; inside
nothing would be the same. I would be different too, once I
belonged to him, and that was what scared me most.
Here are some things my mother could do: sit
still for hours on car trips, swallow pills, strike matches
without burning her fingers, stick long pins through hats without
poking her brain. She knew how to light a cigarette, blow smoke
and then oh so lazily pick a speck of tobacco from her tongue.
I marveled at her competence. But she no longer takes car trips
or wears hats; the words car and hat mean nothing to her now.
"Does she know you?" friends ask. Sometimes I lean over the
bed and she smiles. Sometimes she stares and then closes her
In second grade I loved Stuart Freeman who
had good manners because he came from England (where the queen
insists that children behave). He wore gray wool short pants
with knee socks and kept his letters between the straight blue
lines. Even his g's and q's dropped neatly on the page. Unlike
other boys, he never picked his nose. The problem was how to
fit them together, my mother and Stuart, my sweethearts, my
two great necessary loves.
The first day of third grade, Stuart was gone.
Absent. Down with the sniffles, I told myself, sure to turn
up soon. In fact, he was absent for life, or rather, from my
life from then on. Much later I learned he'd been sent to another
school. For a long time, each morning I thought I would find
him again in home-room.
My mother's absence, when it came, was more
sneaky, less abrupt. By then I was married with children of
my own. At first we barely noticed the questions repeated, objects
misplaced. Appointments missed, directions misunderstood. Soon
her faltering grew harder to shrug off.
"Tell us where you live," the doctor suggested.
She turned to me for help. "You try," I told her, "I'm not allowed
to talk." She looked annoyed. She said, "Who gave you that idea?"
The doctor was gentle, patient, he sat quietly and smiled. I
smiled too, hoping she would behave. "Name the days of the week,"
he said, "Monday ... then, Tuesday? Tuesday comes next?" "We'll
see," she said. Meaning we'd be sorry if we tried to pin her
down. In the end there was no pinning her down, just as there
was no forestalling sorrow. We were sorry, anyway, in the end.
"Please count backwards in sevens from one
hundred." Ninety-three, eighty-six, seventy-nine…. While she
struggled, I tried myself, in my head. It was hard because of
the sevens, and because subtraction is harder than adding.
And there was more. "Spell 'world' backwards,"
the doctor said. Though I knew better, it seemed like a nasty
joke. Because that was the problem, right? The problem was her
world, which had shifted into some kind of grotesque reverse.
As children, we used to laugh when my father ran home movies
backwards. It was a special treat he gave us when the reel was
done. When wishes were made and candles blown out, and then,
before our eyes, those candles flared and the birthday girl
sucked in her breath. When the diver rose from the water feet
first, toes pointed through spray, then torso, then arms, arching
up, up and over to settle on the diving board.
"Little Miss Worry-Wart," she used to call
me, if she found I'd watched from our window the whole time
she was out. She tried to explain the big hand and the little
hand, so many sweeps until she returned. But how could we know
she'd make her way home? What was to keep her from slipping
carelessly into some other life? If I leaned on the radiator
cover, heat worked it's way up through my chest. My elbows dug
at the grill-work and ached. All of me ached to catch that first
glimpse. To breathe easy until she left again. I could see past
our corner, down to Chase Manhattan, to the bakery and half
the green shamrock sign for the bar. At the bakery we bought
Blackout Cake with its cunning pattern, gold and chocolate squares.
I knew the rules; you had to alternate mouthfuls, one chocolate,
one gold. You counted, it had to work out even in the end. I
knew as well to hold my breath driving past cemeteries, to step
over sidewalk cracks. I was learning appeasement, but even then
I had my doubts.
So now, today, picture this:
We are together in a small gray hospital room.
My mother sleeps most of the time, and her waking is not all
that different from sleep. It's September, outside the sky is
blue, the morning sun steady and bright. But I'm not looking
out; instead, I watch the tv mounted high on a wall across from
the bed. This morning everyone here is watching tv where something
terrible and important is happening. Sometimes I step out of
the room and head for the lounge down the hall. I find it easier
to watch with the group that has gathered there. Chairs line
the walls, but for some reason we don't sit, people come in
quietly and stand clustered round the screen. It's hard to believe,
even harder, impossible, to understand. Not one plane, they
say, but two, two planes have hit the towers, smoke billows,
rises, first gray but getting darker, turning black. And now
the Pentagon, they say another plane has hit the Pentagon, and
now we see people running across the White House lawn. But over
and over there is that plane, the beginning, already they have
footage, someone's video which shows the plane as it slams into
the tower. In my head, I reverse the tape. Tail first, the plane
emerges, cutting backwards right to left. The huge fireball
contracts to a spark and vanishes, and the breach in concrete
and steel is whole. Like my birthday cakes and divers from long
ago, though of course not like them at all.
After a little while in the lounge I need to
get back to the room. Yesterday, or maybe the day before, my
mother's respiration dropped– she lay calmly, eyes closed, there
was no gasping, no struggle for air, but each breath came long
and slow with long silent intervals between. In those intervals
the rest of us waited, and it was all we could do to inhale.
Though she gave no sign of effort, for us it was hard work,
like breathing through a straw. We waited, listened, waited
again for whatever would come. And then she was breathing normally,
and we could breathe too. The nurse shrugged and straightened
the covers. I slumped in my chair near the bed. I felt as if
I'd been running in place.
This morning I move from the room to the lounge
and back. Wherever I am I can't stay long. I watch those two
buildings, the smoke, people stumbling out into the street.
Some are sobbing, others seem to be mystified, beyond comprehension
or tears. In the lounge there is talk of preparations here,
staff called in, ambulances dispatched. From the drive below
we've heard a constant wailing of sirens heading downtown. It
won't be long before they return. The doctors downstairs will
tend the wounded, the firemen will put out the fire. It can't
be much longer now. Each time I go back to the room I need to
remind myself that whatever happens I can't ask herabout
it any more. And I can't begin to imagine what she would say.
[Excerpt from a novel: Three
The time is the autumn of 1919,
the place Norwalk, Connecticut. Hannah Sokolov, a Jewish woman
recently moved to the city with her husband and children, has
met Samuel Waterman, a Black man who works on the docks and
in the fish market in town. During their first meeting, Hannah
nearly fainted from the sight of a knife in Samuel's hand. She
is strongly and mysteriously drawn to him and to his wife, Belle,
who also works in the fish market, and whom Hannah has insulted
the last time they met. In this scene, Hannah and Samuel meet
for the second time.
Samuel is counting the crates of fish, entering
something in a notebook, pushing his canvas hat back from his
head and, with a wrinkled white handkerchief, wiping his forehead,
his cheeks, his hands. Tiny black curls are visible above his
ears, under the brim of his hat, at the edge of his chin and
jaw bone. Hannah reaches up to straighten her own thick hair,
replacing a pin that has nearly fallen out. In the moment that
she stands there in that unselfconscious position, arms raised
behind her head, fingers fastening the thick, loose braid more
securely, eyes staring at him with frank and intense interest,
he looks up and sees her.
She nods to him as if she knows him, as if
he knows all the times he's invaded her thoughts since the day
she met him when he carried the knife and the pail. And again,
she sees the hesitant turn of his mouth, the slow, graceful
lifting of his hand to the brim of his hat as he acknowledges
her, this time with a long stare of open admiration, the dark
intensity of his eyes. She's always been shy in this way, unable
to look at people for long, but she is able to look back at
him. There is no reason on earth for her to feel so ordinary
with this Negro man, so comfortable with and pleased by his
presence. No reason she can think of to see the distinctive,
strong features set in the brown skin instead of the brown skin,
as is more usual, blurring the features. There is no sense at
all in doing anything but allowing such unreasonable feelings
to settle and pass; no sense in doing anything but turning toward
the path from the harbor to the open water where she longs to
sit for a while alone, listen to the slow tide coming in, smell
the seaweed and the crawling life as the salt water from the
sea flows into the river's fresh water and covers all of it
for hours, until the tide recedes again. She cannot imagine
why she looks around to see if anyone else is near enough to
observe her, nor, once she sees all is desolate and they are
alone, why she walks toward him instead of turning toward the
path as she had intended and asks if he would care to walk her
to the point where the river meets the edge of the sea, the
spreading out place she has learned from the people in town
to call the Sound.
"It's a short walk, and it's still light,"
she says. "Mr. …?" She adds the word she knows he will receive
as an unexpected sign of respect, so unusual as to be almost
shocking. It will jolt him, communicate worlds of intention,
acknowledgement, even apology for her own bad behavior in the
store which he may have heard about from his wife. "How is your
wife?" she asks, having suspected Belle was in the early months
of carrying a child, wanting to remind him she respects not
only him, despite his blackness, but his wife too, thinking
the respect she conveys to the husband will somehow get back
to the wife, an easy apology since she has no idea how to make
the hard one.
These two have thrown her up and down and sideways
in the week since she first met them in Burns' store. She says
and feels things she doesn't mean to say, has no idea why she
feels. She thinks of them at sudden and surprising moments.
She believes she might have dreamed of them. She had no intention
of speaking so impolitely to the woman, nor does she mean to
be standing here in this lovely harbor where more fishing boats
will soon be coming in, inviting the man to walk to the Sound
"My wife is well," Samuel says. "Thank you.
And it's Waterman. Samuel Waterman. And how are you feeling
since that spell in the store?"– ignoring her invitation to
Hannah looks down at her boots. "Fine now,"
she barely whispers, remembering the knife, his and the one
his brought to mind. "Thank you for your help that day," she
adds, looking up into the black eyes that don't seem to blink.
And there is that look again, as if he has some need to understand,
or see into her, rare in any man– she's only seen it in Aaron
when he looks at May– unknown in a colored man looking at anyone
white, let alone a white woman. He could get killed for it,
she knows. He looks at her as if he is not afraid of her, not
intimidated by her skin color, yet not hating her either with
that constantly threatening anger she has sometimes noticed
in colored people's eyes.
He doesn't cause her the embarrassment of having
to ask again or having to leave without an answer to her question.
Instead, after what seems to her an interminable moment of silence
within which he, apparently, is annoyingly comfortable, he finally
says, "It ain't– isn't– a good idea for me to walk you to the
water, but we might walk around the harbor. I could– " he looks
around, as if for an idea– "I could point out the freshest fish
of the day coming in on the schooners– in case you plan to purchase
something in the market before you return home?"
Hannah nods again, and watches Samuel watch
her reach for her light veil and raise it to cover her hair,
leaving only the waves around her face exposed. The thick clouds
have released a steady drizzle, and the fishing boats are not
due for nearly another hour; perhaps that is why the dock is
deserted except for one other worker, a colored man. They walk
from boat to boat, around the wide oval of the dock and back
again. Each turn takes nearly fifteen minutes, and they do three
turns in all.
"We moved here from New York about a year ago,"
she finds herself telling him, to break the silence and to introduce
herself to him, which for some reason she feels she must do.
"We live on South Main Street, but I still feel my home is at
the southern end of Manhattan, not far from where the two rivers
meet and flow out to sea. That's why I love this harbor. I love
the water– any water– rivers, lakes, but especially the sea.
This is the only part of Norwalk that reminds me of home. I
used to walk to the South Street Seaport at home and just watch
the ferries moving up and down the river, up and down all afternoon,
and smell the fish, oh and picture the open ocean, imagine it
so vast and deep just past where I could see. I'd stare for
hours at that enormous woman in the harbor as if her torch–
well as if her torch was raised just for me. I know it sounds
crazy– she's only a statue, but I miss her now. I do. And you?
How did you come to Connecticut . . . Mr. Waterman?"
She has asked this brazenly, before she can
force herself into an appropriate silence. Why is she speaking
like this to this colored stranger? Why does she want to know
about him? She feels her belly rumbling beneath her heavy dress
and tight corset and remembers she hasn't eaten since morning.
That must be the reason then. And it must be her heavy coat
and the river's humidity– because she is warm and damp under
He takes a dry, closed oyster shell from his
pocket and runs his thumb up and down the ridges as he holds
it in his palm. His father's story defines him almost as much
as his own. It swells him and carries him, almost like Belle.
During the years of his childhood and the years since his father's
death, he has retold it to himself and others more than a hundred
times most likely, so by now it's hard to distinguish the original
from what he's added on. When anyone colored asks about his
history, this is the story he is proud to tell, much more often
than he tells his mama's who was born free to teacher parents
in Connecticut. He can see his mother through his father's stories
about her, just as he has always been able to better see himself
when he thinks about his father's childhood as a slave in Maryland,
then Virginia, and his escape just before the war. One thing
he has never done though is tell the story to anyone white,
partly because no white person ever asked. He's intrigued that
this one wants to know, but he knows too that his willingness
to try, to offer a piece of the history that is so intimately
woven into his being, is born of other feelings besides pride.
The ins and outs of those feelings are too complicated just
at the moment to figure out, so he begins to talk before he
has time to obey the sensible voice telling him to refrain and
return to his work.
He begins his story by telling her his father,
also Samuel, was an oyster shucker, and sometimes a waterman
when he could get the work, all over Connecticut's harbors,
working on the skipjacks for years, doing anything they'd let
a colored man do, as long as it was on the water he loved. "That's
how he got his name," Samuel says.
"Didn't he have a name before?" she asks.
"Well, he did, but it was the slave name, and
he'd left all that behind."
She doesn't understand what a slave name is,
but feels she must not interrupt again. Or he may stop, he may
nod politely, touch his hat and turn from her back to his work.
"He was a tall, thin man," the son says, looking
off toward a vague distance, as if he sees his father there.
"A very quiet man. Some people who've known a lot of pain talk
all the time, as if they have to keep talking to keep the ghosts
down. Others are quiet. Either way, I guess, it's a way of getting
through. He had hair a bit lighter than mine, ‘good hair' like
the people say."
"Good hair?" she asks.
"Yeah." He looks at her quickly and just as
quickly away. "Yes Ma'am. Lots of people had white in them in
his generation. The one that came out of slavery." But before
she can ask how so much mixing happened, he keeps talking. "He
was a proud man– taught himself to read when he was seventeen
and had just come North. He remembered his grandmama telling
him his daddy could read, so he knew he had to learn. Soon as
he got himself fixed in the town, he found a colored teacher,
asked her to teach him to read and write– and she did. That
was my mama– she was strong in her mind, but weak in her body.
She died giving birth to me. He started teaching me when I was
five, kept me at it, reading and writing every night, even when
I had to stop school to work these boats with him. Books still
keep me going in every way."
Hannah thinks of her clumsy writing, of how
long it takes her to read when she tries to get through one
of Michael's books. She feels admiration for father and son,
learning so much on their own, the son talking almost as gracefully
as the white men she knows.
"My daddy died when I just made twenty-one.
Lived more of his life free than slave though, and that always
made him proud. He'd come here as a young boy on the Underground
Railroad. Do you know what that is?" he asks.
His question begins Hannah's first of three
short lessons in the history of American slavery, the only knowledge
of it she will possess until, almost fifty years later when
a surprising and disturbing turn in family events will once
again force her into the company of black people. That will
be the second time she has the opportunity to learn. This time,
during the three lessons she will receive in the space of three
short months, the learning comes to her because something unexplainable
within her has drawn her to a colored man whose wife seems oddly
familiar to her, whose face intrigues her, whose eyes compel
her nearly to the point of faint, and whose story she is somehow
hungry to hear.
"There's a house out on East Street," he tells
her, "belonging to one of the oldest, wealthiest families in
town, and the father is a sea captain who used to bring escaped
slaves in secret up from Baltimore. Then they'd hide out in
the basement tunnels and attic rooms of his mansion until it
was safe for them to move on, further north, sometimes all the
way to Canada."
Hannah's eyes are wide, her mind flooded with
stories of Pogroms, Jews hidden by sympathetic Christians in
attics and basements until the raging Cossacks had passed through
the town. He calls the flood of Negroes escaping from slavery
an "exodus" and she thinks of Passover.
"My father was one of them," he says again
with obvious pride. "He fought in a colored regiment in the
War. Settled here after Emancipation." He goes back in time,
recounting the story of a small, frightened child sold away
from his grandmother, the only parent he has ever known. He
makes no mention of the murdered father or the white mother,
not this time, in the first lesson. He describes the Chesapeake
Bay as he's heard it described to him from vague, impressionable
memories carried around for over forty years. "When my father
was sold, he was too young to have learned oyster shucking from
his father, but when he worked up and down the Connecticut coast,
he remembered his grandmamma telling him that had been something
his father knew, so he learned it with a special feeling. And
he taught it to me." Samuel opens his palm, pulls the narrow
curved knife from his pocket, gets down on one knee for leverage
and deftly pries open the crusty shell he holds in his hand.
"Hardest shell of all of them," he says, looking
up at Hannah who holds back a feeling of nausea at the sight
of the colorless flesh oozing from between the expanding crack.
Samuel spreads the two halves wide with his fingers and shows
her the tiny piece of life, a translucent silvery blue in the
"Try it," he says to her astonishment, and
"We don't eat shell fish," she stammers, remembering
her anger at Belle, this time feeling along with the nausea
a strong regret.
Samuel stands up. "I forgot. I apologize,"
he says, and scooping the thing up in his fingers he sucks it
into his mouth. "We'd best walk back now," he says, and extends
his hand to her arm as if to steer her in a gentlemanly way.
But he stops short of her actual flesh and holds only the air
in his outstretched hand.
There is still more than an hour of light,
and as much time before she's promised May to return so she
can help with dinner and be there when Michael comes home. When
they stand for a moment at the loading dock – he thinking of
the crates he will carry to Burns' Market, she of the Sound
she still wants to see– she becomes aware of a great sense of
guilt, as if she has sinned.
"Thank you," she says. "This has been– " but
she can't think what it has been. She feels wildly exposed to
this stranger, inexplicably intimate with this colored person,
unforgivably aggressive with a man who is not a relative, not
Jewish, not even white. Without any words, she has to count
on her eyes, and she tries to return his gaze with a directness
and clarity equal to his. She can manage it for a few long seconds
this time before she has to look away.
He says, "No. Thank you. For listening
to my history. For the walk." He bows very slightly.
"Remember me to your wife," she say – and thinks,
what an odd way to put it under the circumstances, considering
her behavior the last time she saw the woman called Belle, and
her behavior this day with Belle's husband. The wife is not
likely to have forgotten her rudeness; it is Hannah who is trying
to remember if the sense of familiarity she feels means she
has seen Belle somewhere before; or perhaps the first two words
of the sentence are all she really means to say to him.
Suffused with guilt, confused by desire, she
turns quickly away from him and feels, or believes she feels,
those black eyes penetrating her shoulders and her back. She
reaches a hand around to straighten her veil and pull at the
hem of her jacket, but she does not turn to look at him again.
Instead, she plays the rearranging game and becomes so engrossed
in moving shapes and altering colors she is surprised when she
finds herself at the edge of the beach, as if her feet have
taken her there without her knowing it, remembering the way
on their own.
Why, Samuel wonders, has he been telling this
white woman he hardly knows but is mysteriously drawn to his
history, risking his life in the process? Does it have to do
with his grandmother, Louisa, whose face has remained etched
in his mind as his father had described her, counting on his
own never quite forgotten memory: A narrow, bony face, a wide
generous mouth, straight, long, light hair, braided and wound
carelessly around her head, or clasped at the nape of her neck,
large and passionate blue eyes filling up with tears as he is
driven away. Maybe they were his own tears his father had remembered
so vividly. Maybe he had created her features from imagination
more than from actual memory. But he always said he remembered
the feel of her body against him, her arms around him, the games
she played with colored thread and clothespins, the white dream
that frightened her and so intrigued him he was able to recount
it to his son in perfect detail. And he remembered his grandmother,
Ruth, telling him the night before he was to leave, Listen
to me, Boy. That white girl who visits us is your mama. You
can't never call her that. You can't even let her know you know.
But you need to know it. It will serve you in your life. Don't
never think you don't have everything in you they got in them,
except their meanness, but you as good as them in every way.
Samuel remembers his father's recounted memories
word for word. He sees his father's mouth turn down in a particular
gesture of sorrow, held in place from his oldest, worst memory
of being driven away in a wagon, chained to the side, the gesture
kept until the present time when he is free and has work he
gets paid for, a child he loves, and a home. But the old sorrow
never left his mind, and its record never left the turn of his
Is it Louisa, then, who drives him to talk
to the woman called Hannah Sokolov, Louisa who has had a place
in his mind for all his life, it seems, but whose description
doesn't match this dark haired, olive skinned white woman at
all? Except that she– like this one– was white? Is it only that
striking face that draws him? If you took each of her features
alone, they were no more perfect or graceful than any other
woman's– unless it was her eyes– something in their darkness
and shape– or her mouth, wide and expressive. Is it simply that?
A beautiful face he can't resist? Or is there something about
this Hannah Sokolov that speaks to him like one of Belle's stories
and draws him like a picture in the making, suggesting something
wonderful and dangerous and indescribable having nothing to
do with either beauty or color at all?
Her skin color is certainly lighter than his.
But it's not color. Race has always been the thing. But it's
always color, even within the race, some passing, some thinking
they're better than you cause they're lighter, or cause they're
darker. Yet they're all black, no matter how many white grandparents,
or even parents, hide themselves in the branches of the family
And if it is neither color, nor beauty alone,
nor memory, nor love– for without question it is Belle he loves–
then what is it? Pure animal desire of the sort whites are always
thinking black men have for white women? He feels desire– he
knows that– but not of a purely physical sort– although he cannot
deny his body's response. There is some tie, or connection he
cannot place to this Jewish woman from another world whose assertion,
he is sure, contradicts her apparent fragility, who has a power
lying beneath her weakened state, and who, like himself, seems
to be driven by something beyond her understanding or control.
He cannot explain it to himself, but he has read enough history
and poetry to know the need for an explanation would not even
come up if she were black. People are drawn to each other for
all sorts of reasons, suddenly and unreasonably and often inconveniently.
The world is white, though, and so it must be the whiteness
of the world that makes the whole thing dumbfounding. He throws
the thoughts off with an actual shake of his head as he enters
the store and lays down the first of the crates he must carry
from the dock before he can go home to Belle. It won't happen
again. That much he promises himself. He is not about to risk
his life, let alone the life of his wife and their coming child.
A light but freezing rain is falling now, causing
the autumn leaves to glisten as if tiny pearls line the edges
of purple, deep orange and brown. Tall grasses along the sand
banks are a burnt orange in the fading light, her favorite color,
the color of her living room rug at home. A salty, slightly
putrid smell of damp seaweed signals low tide, and she can see
the mud flats beginning to emerge yards from shore. No feeling
of guilt or confusion can cause her to deny this happiness–
from what? she wonders. She will very likely never talk to him
again. She will see him in the fish store and smile politely.
But she will know. She feels a shift inside herself and knows
the meaning of the rumbling hunger. Even it if is never filled,
it is better to know it is there, to know she can feel it, is
not dead to this sumptuous longing. It is shocking, yet even
better somehow, that he is colored. That he is so completely
different from herself, so foreign even though his family has
been here for generations and hers has just arrived. She imagines
the life crowding the shallow water and the mud below so vividly
she can almost see the creatures before her eyes: tiny hermit
crabs scurrying sideways; sponges and anemones that look less
like creatures than like flowers opening and closing with the
tides; sharp barnacles and large star fish that look hard but,
like the oyster, are slimy and silky to the touch; muscles and
snails and clams she is forbidden to taste. Like the river,
like this water they call the Sound, she is full of noise, she
can hear flowing and rippling, the slurring swoosh of the tide
coming in. She can hear the crawling hermits, as if their tiny
claws were tiptoeing in her ears. She can hear the undulations
of the anemones. She is teeming with sound and moving life forms.
Full of herself, she's heard women and girls say about the ones
they derisively call princesses – who does she think she is
– a princess – a goyishe princess? A shiksa, to prance around
like that with her nose in the air? She stands away from the
rock she's been leaning against and prances around like a shiksa
princess with her nose in the air. She is full of her hunger.
The sound inside her rolls into high tide with a roar.