The Manchester Review
Geoff Ryman
The Storyteller
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     Sellable stock we can sort by category. Prime, No. 1, No. 2. We pull apart the men and women and line them up by height. Then we call them Mulatto or Griffe or Quadroon. My pa sorts them to what people understand: a category and a category means a price.
     It’s my job to make them special again. I’m the storyteller. Pa found a use for me, all right.
     You see what I know in my bones is that in the end what we’re selling is folks. And folks always have a story.
     So I look at the babes. It ain’t no story to tell customers that they’re by themselves ‘cause we sold their Daddy to Natchez and their Ma to Louisiana. No, no, no. I call them ‘poor wee babes’ and say they ‘lost’ their mama. Nobody’s going to ask what lost means. Lost, it bespeaks of a tragedy that left these little angels behind.
     I’ll sell them as dolls.
     I see widow ladies who come in they think for a laundress, but I know they secretly need something to smother with love. I can see them putting those little darlings in starchy pinafores and letting them ride ponies. Till they start getting tall and uppity that is. I also see some poor simple black gal 20 years from now still dazed with love talking about the old days with her white mama, who died. I see her scrubbing smalls in a tub.
     Right now I got to get them sold. I reckon sets could help us shift them. I pair them off one big, one small. We get some ribbons, we get some sweet little skirts. I give them some boiled taffy to make them hug each other and then I say “Look how fond he is of his little sister, can you bear to part them?”
     Same as we put the fancy stock in gloves and tell folks some yarn about their refined and genteel upbringing as a member of the family.
     You can see these busted up old famers with whiskers as big as shoulders of lamb, their eyes go all misty. They want to believe the stories. They want to believe they’re getting something special. They want to believe that the United States is full of devoted slaves who nursed their master on his deathbed and who must be sold as a sacrifice. They don’t want to believe this is what it is. They don’t want to believe that there are no white families who raise black women as delicately as they raise their own. What they think they want don’t exist, but I help them see it anyway. That’s what storytelling’s all about.