When young Fancy came to Master’s Big Place, his birth momma, Emma, had him all hugged up in a buttercup yellow blanket. They glimpsed each other sometimes after that. Emma sometimes found a reason to come up to the Big House and rest her scratchy palm on his head, for a second.
Betsy, the cook, took daily care of him. At night, she would tell him ‘jump on up’ to the lumpy soft mattress behind the kitchen. Emma slept cross the yard in the Quarters with the hands.
Due to Master’s whim, as he grew, Fancy learned to eat when James, the Master’s son ate, at the low blue table, near him. He had to be finished whenever James was, so he had to eat quickly. After lunch, they played hoops and with the red ball. Soon he was allowed to practice on his own slate, while Tutor Foster lectured and examined James in Master’s study or in the screened porch, if it was very hot.
Once a year, Betsy gave her bed to Emma on what she told Fancy was his birth day. Those nights, Emma came to tell him stories. He was scared of her, at night. She had scar dots circling her face and long, raised scars, every which way on her back. The night he was three, she brought stories of vines like ropes and leaves like shutters, and strange shapes of mouth-watering fruit. Past his bed crunched animals bigger than wagons, slithered snakes more poisonous than Cottonmouth, slunk cats sharp as saw blades. At his fourth birthday, she told him of his Songhai relatives and some of their stories. Song-hai, he would say. When he was five, she gave him his name: Mwalimu, Teacher, when he could be trusted to never let on; and if he did, the story-visits would have to stop. He also learned to say: kinywa, mouth; sikio, ear; and mkono, hand.
During the long night of turning five, she told him a monkey story and he laughed. Then, Timbuktu, of a thousand lights, spilled like a lingering sunset onto the hills of his knees. Ten, thirty, fifty thousand cattle trekked across his blankets to the markets of the Coast. He was of Benin and Mali. Songhai and SonniAli. What dreams that night!
When he became six, Emma imagined him into being Brother in a cornfield across the big ocean, scaring crows. He watched Sister, washing clothes in the shady shallows. He saw Mother, cooking at the hut fire; Father, sleeping after teaching. He was caught, scraped and dragged, cut and rope-chafed, marched away from his village home, huts burning, head shaved, stuffed into a boat. We will eat you, his captors said, weakening him, calling on nightmares. Frantic eyes were the lightning bugs, fireflies around his window.
Emma said, in the morning: “You weren’t eaten, were you?” He stared at her. “You couldn’t have been eaten; here you are.” She stared into his eyes, while her scratchy hands cupped his cheeks.
“Around you here is laundry Sister, cornfield Brother; cooking Mother and singing Father. They are here.” He got up and looked out of the window. He saw a light move from one room to the next, in the Big House, in the dim dawn.
“You cannot tell your story; like your name, it must be yours only, something to know forever.” He should be proud.
He didn’t understand. But he didn’t ask anyone. He had learned lots of things he didn’t understand.
After he was six, during Midday, he learned to sharpen the tools that Earnest, the tool hand, made in the smithy. He watched with admiration as Earnest changed a chunk of glowing iron into an axe head or a hoe. That July, he gathered some of the pretty orange nails off the anvil in a hurry while Earnest’s back was turned. He was going to show Master James. He screamed without stopping, until Betsy put a poultice on his hand; his first experience with real pain.
The scars formed raised angry lines across his right palm and fingers. When they cracked open, it made it hard to write or hold the file or do anything. Emma’s lines on her back were like that, she said. Earnest had lines on his back from something called Lightin Out that must have hurt, too. Fancy never wanted to do that. For a while, he couldn’t even play marbles with James and the other youngsters, till he practiced with his left hand a lot. It took a while for him to read his own writing again on the learning slate.
Once in a while, he had free time. One day, what started as cartwheels with playmates in the long green melon-scented grass, turned into a pair of them rolling down the smooth hill behind Big House spinning like whirligigs. They ran up to the top of the hill again and held each other tight and rolled together whumpity whumpity down the long hill. When they stopped rolling and he sat up straddle the girl, Litany, who was the tutor’s daughter, he saw she was glowing like the forge coals.
Suddenly, Betsy snatched him up by the armpits and hissed: “You go on, Miss Litany, before yo’ daddy sees what you kids is playing at.”
To Fancy, she said: “Ain’t you learned nothin, ‘cept numbers and names?”
He involuntarily thought: Homo Sapiens Negroides, as he’d been taught with Master James. In front of a long mirror, Tutor Foster had made him strip off his clothes alongside a detailed drawing of a white boy. Master James made scritching sounds on his slate, while the Tutor pointed out Fancy’s dissimilarities: “Notice the disproportionate bone length of the thigh,” he said. Fancy’s cheeks had burned while he shivered in front of the mirror.
Then James held up his slate with a scarecrow drawn on it and Fancy laughed explosively, since he had expected to see himself, looking giraffe-legged and peanut-headed. The tutor caned him twice on the thighs in question.
In September, Tutor judged them in a poetry competition, which Master James won, whose entry the Tutor called ‘moving’ and ‘beyond his years.’ The theme was: Zeus and his children, from a picture that Tutor showed them in a book. They wrote poems about the picture of a girl and a swan.
Master James wrote something that included:
“gat upon the heaving hips, and pecked her berried, jasmine lips.”
Fancy decided to ask his friend, Long Jake, to tell him more about the gatting and the hips.
Fancy had written:
“Where Zeus sat by the brook, I told him ‘look,’ and Leto floated by, whose life she took.”
Tutor had wiped Fancy’s slate off in disgust and accused him of writing down anything that came into his mind and calling it poetry, and some other things. He should apply himself to his numbers.
Fancy had learned a fair amount about gatting on the hips while he lived with Betsy, though he was supposed to stay buried on the floor down below the bed in blankets when Betsy had a man sleep with her instead of him.
Before Fancy was born, Master had moved Earnest, the Smith, into Betsy’s bedroom; but when no children came of it, Master moved him out and tried another buck. “Not right,” said Earnest. “Won’t do it.” Earnest had a wife somewhere. Unlike Earnest, other men weren’t of the Book, so Betsy had had many roommates and several children.
By age seven, Fancy could keep track and was sometimes given to Betsy in the kitchen. He also found himself going to town with Long Jake for supplies. During the dusty ride, he explained to Long Jake all about Zeus and rhyming and all the numbers and negroids’ longer bones and smaller brains.
He got to carry the shopping list through the doors of the Mercantile, past the big barrel of pickles, the stacks of fence wire and tables of colored cloth. The list said: a packet of needles, a spool of pink thread and a small bag of peppercorns. Long Jake was waiting alongside the front door of the store, with the mule cart. The total came to two-eighty.
Fancy handed over the three Master Dollars, as though he was turning in a slate of numbers to Tutor.
The shopkeeper folded them into his apron pocket and held out his hand again. “Pay up now, boy.”
“I give you three!” Fancy was outraged. For this counting, he didn’t need his slate. “I give you ‘em all! Look on the floor, maybe! I give you three! NO!!”
The shopkeeper’s hand crashed down across his face and Fancy fell onto a burlap of potatoes. Long Jake’s strong hands fastened around his ribs and hugged him up into his arms.
Long Jake carried the purchases in paper in his pocket with a note for Master. Fancy, fuming and bruised, walked alongside the rig. “I didn’t lose it; I give it to ‘im!” His head throbbed and his face felt huge.
Jake said: “Only one way outa this now. If you don’ member losin' them on the way there, best member losin' them for we gets back. Those dollars is lost, but you ain’t, yet.”
Fancy looked like he was choking on something.
“Take it easy, boy. Some things is what they is.”
“He…” said Fancy.
“Point is,” said Long Jake, “that shopkeeper that way, right? Some things just is and needs to be ‘pproached they’s way. You ain’t gonna change them. You gotta change how you goes after them. Take it slow now. I mean, real slow. Let ‘em think you is dumb.”
“I ain’t dumb.”
“No, I know you ain’t dumb. Point is, if they think you is dumb, you gonna be alright. And slow and easy fit right into dumb.”
Master gave Fancy a choice. Be whipped eight times or choose another slave to take the whip for him. Or divide it up. He could think about it during the night.
Still furious with the shopkeeper, at sundown Fancy decided he would take as many lashes as he could, which in his brave, angry, seven year old mind was four or five or seven, at least, and maybe all eight, if he could hold his breath and bite something between his teeth. He could ask Earnest to hold still for one or two lashes, if he needed to, since he was strong and healthy and had done it before and probably already knew about breath holding. He could even ask Emma to do one lash, if he had to, since he knew she would forgive him.
As dawn lit up the trees, fences, grass and white wash of the plantation and chickens clucked, cicadas clicked and milk drilled into the buckets in the barn, Emma came to the kitchen door. “Betsy, I need the boy,” she said. Fancy had already built up the fire, so the timing was fine.
In air thin and crisp, Emma led the way past the store house, past the patch-planked servants’ Quarters, where the hands and Earnest lived.
At the old footbridge across the river, slick with moss and loose with rot, Emma said: “You smart, but there ain’t enough time to let you understand what being owned is about and what being sold is. You’s been young and that’s one thing. You ain’t ready, but they gonna whip you. Whip my boy. When they whip you, being young gonna be over, being Songhai gonna be over. You think you is part Master and part Earnest and part everybody and you ain’t. You black and you Songhai, but whipped so young, you gonna be just a slave. We never did s’posed to even be here.”
And Emma snatched him from behind, wrapped her legs around his. She pinned his arms and threw their bodies into the water. Desperate, he wriggled against her like a netted fish. She looked thin as a frayed thread, but was strong as ropes.