Issue 6

Geoff Ryman
The Storyteller

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?
     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.
     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.
     Today was New Year’s Day and somebody wanted to buy him, and that somebody was Jason Jackson Turner. He’s a people too and his story is this; his grandfather owns half the docks in New Orleans but he comes all the way up here every New Year to buy a boy. It’s always a boy. I can see straight through him. I hate the man, he makes my skin crawl, there’s something about him makes my thumbs prickle. He comes shameless into our yard in a white and red striped jacket looking like a candy cane, and a huge top hat. That’s what they call fashion.
     How these poor folk dread Christmas as New Year follows sure as sunrise when they get sold south or rented south. Every year there’s ice on the ground and he makes the boys take off their shirts and more if he’s given half a chance. He thumbs their nipples. I told him once; I don’t think boys make good wet-nurses. He just grinned like I’d said something clever.
      So today he descends like Calliope all fluttering scarves and heads straight for George. My Pa is right there, so I can’t say, this one’s not for sale.
     He bends down low so George has to look into his face. “What’s your name?” he asks. George turns away. He asks again and George murmurs it out and I can see this purchaser has been struck. The same thing that won me, the gentleness, the shyness, as self-contained as a birthday parcel.
      “It’s too chill to make the child undress,” I tell him.
      “There’s no need. He’s very satisfactory.”
      “What will you use him for?”
      “Oh,” he says with a smile. “Ornament.”
      “And when he’s 24?”
      “Oh, by then the whole world will be different. Get used to it, young Mr Jameson. Your trade will have changed considerably by then.” He slaps my shoulder and puts a kerchief over his face like I smell. Of course all these fine and fancy folks don’t even want to dine with slavetraders.
      “I’ll see about the paperwork,” I tell him. I look at George and he looking right at me and those eyes say plain as pumpkins don’t leave me. Don’t leave me with this man.
     My heart roils and my fists clench and I can’t think straight, I walk around the yard wondering why the Earth does not open up to prevent such enormities. I shiver inside with disgust and misery and I know I cannot bear to dispose of George in this way.
      “Father,” I say. “I…I refuse to sell that boy to that man.”
      “I’ll do the refusing, not you.”
      “Father. He’s… he’s… a sodomite.”
     That brings the old man up short, but he doesn’t yet lift up his eyes from the accounts. “Is he now?”
      “Every year he comes here and buys a boy, and from the way he handles them it’s plain what his purpose is. I ask him what he wants them for and he says ornament.”
     He finally looks at me. “Hmm. A terrible thing, if true.”
      “Look at how he dresses. Look at his eyes!’
      “What do you think happens to the fancy stock? Why do you think there are so many mulattoes? Boy, you’ve been believing some of your own stories.” He shrugs like he’s under a yoke. Something makes his hand shake and suddenly he throws down the quill. “Look, being cornholed is not one jot worse than picking cotton in summer. What our customers do with their property is not our business. Selling is. So get out there and sell your little friend.”
     This has been coming for some time. It’s been swelling up inside me. I hear myself say, “I’ll buy him myself instead.”
     That makes my pappy blink. I push on. “I need a manservant, I’ve been saving for months.”
     I have been, without realising and it was for just such a moment as this. I’ve just told the truth.
     My father blinks again. “Well, if you can pay the price.” My father chuckles. “The little sodomite will just have to find another boy to buy.”
     It gives me great pleasure to crunch across the ice to Jason Jackson Turner and tell him, that there has been a mistake, that George had already been reserved for sale.
     He smiles at me like something amuses him. “Forgive me, dear boy. If I had known I would not have trespassed.” I didn’t like the greasy way his eyes latched on to mine, or his smile.
     Then as airily as if selling a boy, buying a boy were nothing, he went about his inspections. He bought the Griffe we had in from Cape Giradeau.
     My father counts the money.
     Tonight the wind whistles round my room and it is cold, and there is George, looking uncertain. I’ve given him some of my old clothes to wear, so he looks respectable, if not yet a manservant.
     In my heart, I know what I am. I am a negro lover, one of those crawling, two-faced, cowardly men who love the brown eyes, the soft voices more than they love their own kind. I try to hide it, but my father knows and sees it. What perversion is it to prefer the black man and his whelps to your own species? And to spend a lifetime, hiding this secret in your heart? When the black men are freed, I shall rejoice. But I shall lose them, too.
     What will I do with George? I don’t want somebody to dress me or polish my boots. I want a friend. “It’s cold,” I tell him. “We’ll have to share a bed.”
     I’ll tell my father some story in the morning.