The Manchester Review
Geoff Ryman
The Storyteller
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     So I’m sitting there, working out stories about consumptive young women whose faces hang as low as a bloodhound’s. I give them back their bosoms with handkerchiefs, and if the buyer wants to squeeze them I say Please! The young lady has not been subject to such inspections!
     Yes, I say, Emily was Returned but only because her mistress did not like the New Orleans style of dressing the hair.
     Lord, what a mess of negroes we got cooped up in this pen now. Negroes as thin as pine saplings. Bucks whose eyes beam hatred and whose backs are a cobweb of scars from whupping.
     Whipping! Can you beat that for ignorance? We never whip our negroes. We use a paddle instead. Blisters them up, but leaves no scars. Keeps their value.
     I say, Jim here is a likely negro of fine character. Those scars are the result of a miscarriage of justice, he was whipped for another slave’s thievery. I have a letter from his previous master to that effect. It’s a good letter, too; I wrote it myself.
     You see to tell the story, I have to see them as people too, and that’s the clincher.
     I look at each and every one of them. That evil old buck I see as little boy with his mama. I see the consumptive getting herself a nice warm bed to die in.
     Then there’s George. George is twelve. His mama got sold and we saved him up for New Years. He doesn’t beam hatred. He hangs his head and rolls in his lips and says Sir soft and low. He’s skinny and small and shy and sweet. You like reading George? I ask him.
     I aint supposed to read, he says. I know he does. Just something in the way he moves.
      ‘I like reading too,’ I say. ‘I can loan you books. Or read to you if you like.’
      ‘My Mama taught me to read,’ he says, and a slow tear comes crawling down his little face, and Lord, it was fit to bust my heart. ‘Well I’ll bring you books,’ I tell him.
     So I come back the next day with Oliver Twist, and I start reading it to him. The sight of me sitting on my haunches and reading to a pickaninny makes my Pappy charge like a bull. He’s shaking and he’s got his riding stick in his hand and wants to know what in a billygoat’s ass I think I’m doing.
      “Don’t you know it’s illegal to teach a negro to read!”
      “I reckon we can sell this one as a child’s companion, Pa. Story I’m going to tell is he took care of an invalid child for years and when she died, he got sold.”
      “I wish you took the same trouble over the fancy stock.”
     "The fancy stock sells itself and you know what for.”
     So I get to sit with George. He’s a bit wary at first. But I read to him, and bring him good food, and I pretend to Pa it’s all just grooming. But I know it’s not. I feel sorry for him, I want something good to happen to him. You can’t help taking a special interest in some of them.
     Well, I been grooming George for three weeks, before it all came to a head. By now George feels comfortable around me. He tells me jokes about chickens and calico. He shows me how to make fishhooks out of cornhusks. He starts teaching me songs, he likes songs. He’s scared and he’s lonesome and he’s grieving. I just want to stroke his head and tell him everything will be all right.