The Manchester Review
Geoff Ryman
The Storyteller
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We shoe-blacked the old boy’s hair and washed him in greasy water so his skin shined. Lizzie found one of her old corsets and we laced him up so tight that he could actually stand up straight. Put him in one of our regular blue serge suits and he looked like there’d be at least ten year’s of life left in him.
     I spun my story. “This is Joseph. He’s a skilled carpenter, very nice in his habits, not up to hard field labour frankly, but then that would be a waste. Fix anything from a gin to a wheel. Cooper and wainright all in one, ain’t that so, Joseph?”
     Joseph knows he’d better say yes.
     Joseph was a dead man, but we finally managed to sell him to a horsetrader from Hannibal as a toolroom negro. Don’t know what we’ll do with the rest of this last batch.
      I wish the wenches wouldn’t keep having babies. I guess if they didn’t we wouldn’t have anything to sell in ten years’ time, but right now, you can knock at least $50 off the fanciest stock in the pen if she’s got babies attached. No matter how often you say that the mother’s worth more with a babe attached, the buyers don’t want ‘em. They take the mother and leave the children.
     I hate it. The mothers put up such a fight you fear for damaging your stock. You can’t sell even a No. 1 domestic if she’s got a bruise on her face. Means she’s trouble and nobody buys trouble.
     Then you got the babes left behind with all that caterwauling and wailing. But it’s even worse when they realize that their Mama really has gone. Sometimes they break, go silent, stare, won’t eat. I get mad at Pa, I say, why you got to sell those mothers and babes separate for? He just tells me this is no business for the soft-hearted and I’m lucky he found a use for me.
     So I go back and look at this clutch of babies who won’t be fit for work for another ten years and I start thinking how on earth we’re going to unload these?