an excerpt from the novel Devil's Dream
Forrest rode down the Memphis waterfront on the black stallion he’d named Satan. Mary Ann didn’t care for that name but he’d felt that none other would suit. Between his knees the animal boiled with a dark energy, stepping high and wanting to run. Forrest held the horse in with his left hand, leaving enough give in the reins that Satan wouldn’t harden his mouth on the bit, and kept his right hand free for tipping his hat, for once he turned from the river into Beale Street he knew most of the merchants and tradesmen whose establishments lined the western blocks. An acquaintance hailed him with news of a boatload of slaves out of Virginia that had just come downriver, and Forrest raised a finger to signify that he’d look in on his return.
At the corner of Causey Street a blind black man sat on an empty packing case, plucking a long-necked banjo slowly: a short repetitive cycle of notes. The strings were tuned down and the skin head was slack and the hollow slipperiness of the tune connected with an unquiet sensation Forrest had in his entrails. What he might feel at the start of a hunt or the brink of a fight, or when he came to a gaming table and felt the first clicking of dice bones in the hollow of his hand.
The banjo faded as he walked the black horse south. In these few blocks of one- and two-room clapboard houses it was quieter than on Beale Street, and he needn’t tip his hat, though most of the blacks who peopled this quarter probably knew Mister Forrest by sight. A woman looked up from the wash pots in her swept yard, a flash of frank curiosity in her face in the instant before she ducked her kerchiefed head away. Forrest felt his stomach settle. Here he came in broad daylight, bang down the middle of the street, riding the finest horse he owned, head held high and his hat square on top of it.
The house he was bound for was built some stouter than most—waist-high stake fence around the yard and a gate with iron hinges and latch. Left of the gate was a hitching post and, to the left of that, Jerry sat on the box of his wagon, his big hands lying loose on his knees, eyes hidden in the shade of his cap, still as a lizard soaking in the warmth of the afternoon sun. In the wagon bed behind, the boy sat facing the other way, stiff as a post, a bundle and stick tucked under his heels and his wrists and ankles sticking a little too far from the cuffs of his clothing.
Forrest dismounted and hitched his horse. “Matthew,” he said, “why ain’t you gone inside?”
The boy looked past him, his eyes lighting up when they fell upon Satan. When the eyes returned to Forrest they were vacant. Forrest shook his head and turned toward the house, laying his hand on the top rail of the gate. Two railroad-tie steps led up to a shallow plank stoop beneath the overhang of the roof. There, on a puncheon stool, sat Catharine, nursing the new baby under a light cotton shawl. Her chin was up and her eyes didn’t lower. Two proud women, Forrest thought, and wondered again if south of Beale Street would be far south enough. He felt as if the unglazed windows of the several houses behind him were all drilling holes into his back.
“Why, Mist’ Forrest,” Catharine said, unsmiling. “You welcome to come in.”
He thumbed the latch up and went into the yard, pulling the gate shut behind him with a little snap. As he approached, Catharine stood, still holding the baby in her bosom, then turned and went into the house, leaving the door open behind her. Forrest glanced back once as he climbed the pair of steps. Matthew and Jerry sat where they were, facing opposite ways in the wagon, immobile as a pair of bronze bookends. The whitewash on the doorjamb was still tacky when he touched it with his thumb. He went inside and shut the door behind him.
The first room smelled piney from the new boards. Catharine sat on a ladder-backed chair, cradling the baby. She aimed her chin at a stuffed settee. Forrest took off his hat and sat down awkwardly. Horsehair pricked his back through the ticking. He had bought an item or two of secondhand furniture and had others made at his place on Big Creek. This was the fanciest seat in the house and the least comfortable. Forrest craned his neck this way and that. The back door was open, and he could see a few green shoots of something or other coming up from the dirt beyond its open frame.
“Where’s Tom and Jimmy?” he said.
“Gone over to the river with some other li’l niggers lives round here.” She looked up at him, her brown eyes catching a gleam from the front window. Forrest pulled his head back as if he’d been slapped.
“They peepen at them boats what carries po niggers downriver,” she said.
Forrest turned his head toward a motion that caught his eye through the back door. A little speckled hen scratched the dirt in the yard.
“Like you ship me downriver to satisfy yo wife,” Catharine said.
Forrest’s hat fell on the floor as he jumped from his seat. He resisted the urge he had to stomp on it, for a grown man looked foolish stomping on his hat. “Goddammit, Catharine!” he said. “I shipped you a whole ten blocks downriver, into a new-built house with glass in the windows and brass knobs on the doors. Goddamn it all to the burning tar pits of Hell.”
“Why Mist’ Forrest,” she said. “You carry on cussen thataway, Ole Devil gone tote you off to that Hell you keeps namen and stick you with a pitchfork.”
Forrest stared at her desperately. “Hit’s a hard-hearted woman ever which way I look.”
Catharine lowered her eyes. He felt that some of the fight had gone out of her. She seemed almost calm, though he knew she wasn’t. Her lashes were long and thick, the color of jet. He took a step forward to peer at the infant.
“He looks right stout,” he said, though really he was just an old baby with his eyes shut and his mouth busy pulling on the tit; there wasn’t a whole lot to see about him. “Favors his brother.”
“They favors they daddy.” She raised her head, turning her long graceful neck so he saw her in profile. Her hair was pulled up in her kerchief like a crown. She was looking out the front window now. “That’n out there on the wagon do too,” she said.
Air whooshed out of Forrest’s chest as he dropped back on the horsehair cushion. “His name is Matthew.”
“Ain’t no matter to me what his name is. That boy is witched if you ax me. Don’t speak, don’t move, don’t hardly breathe. What I want with a half-grown boy round here?”
“Chop wood. Draw water.” Forrest took a long breath. “He ain’t got nowhar else to go.”
“He a nigger, ain’t he? He a slave, ain’t he? He bound to go where you sends him,” Catharine said. “Ain’t he?”
“Listen to me.” Forrest leaned forward, elbows sliding over his knees. He searched the new planks of the floor for splinters. He felt a surge come over him of the kind he felt in any situation where there was nothing to do but throw down all he had. “His mother is dead. I never did own her. I couldn’t buy her. I was liven on my own then, traden in mules. I wasn’t with her but the one time. She got sold for a fancy girl down to New Orleans. They wasn’t no use in me thinken about it. Then she up and died lately and somebody sent word. I don’t know why they bothered. I don’t know how they knew who to bother. Two weeks ago I didn’t know that boy was on this earth.”
Catharine turned toward the front window again. “You looks at him once you knows where he come from.”
“That’s about the size of it.” Forrest sat back. “Well, he done cost me all I could give and then some. He don’t seem to want much to do with me, and I don’t know what to do with him. You can jest picture how Ole Miss would cotton to him at home.”
“So you aims to drop him on me.”
“I got him schooled to a saddle maker on Beale Street. Fore you know it he’ll be bringen home good money.”
Catharine rocked back in her seat and laughed harshly. The baby stirred, and she stroked his head with her palm. Black curls were already coming in on the milk-chocolate scalp.
“I’ll see your young’ns learn a trade also,” Forrest said. “When it oncet comes time.”
Catharine gazed back at him evenly. “Will they be free?”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Forrest said. “What I’d like to know is will I ever be.”
She laughed again, but there seemed to be no bitterness in it this time. The baby was sleeping now, and she drew him carefully away from the breast. The nipple stood up dark and thick and polished with spit, and she didn’t cover it even after she had laid the baby in the box in the corner. She looked at Forrest with her hands on her hips and the one breast pointing at him, her handsome head held high.
“A fancy gal you say. Nawlins.”
“They warnt a thing I could do to stop that at the time.” Forrest narrowed his vision into her ginger eyes. “I stopped it happenen to you.”
“I knows it,” Catharine said. “I was right there when you laid down yo money and bought me for yo self.”
When she opened the door to the second room there was a flood of light from the windows in the west wall. Through the doorway he could see in the bright pool of sunlight a bed with a quilt made of worn-out work pants, the legs slit and sewn together in Vs. Catharine shrugged her whole upper body, and when she turned toward him again she was bare to her navel. Yet what seemed to capture his eye most was the way the tendon of her neck centered so perfectly in the cup of her collarbone. It struck him like an arrow to his core.
“Come on, you big ugly mean ole buckra,” she said. “Le’s see how you claims what you owns.”
Someone had cranked the bed ropes good and tight and for the next two hours they needed be. Forrest was roused from a thick, oily sleep by young voices laughing and a splattering sound from the street. He sat up to peer out the window. Outside, Matthew and Thomas tittered and pointed as the black horse Satan hosed down the street with a great foamy piss.
Catharine caught his shoulder and pulled him back. “Lay down,” she said. “I don’t want’m to see us.”
Forrest stretched out on his back, not entirely at ease. He could hear his watch ticking in some pocket of his discarded clothes. A warm hand on his belly. She burrowed against him.
“I wish you belonged to me all the time,” she said.
“I know it.” Forrest looked into the shadows of the ceiling. “Ain’t nobody gets all they wish for.”
In the gloaming he rode north across town toward the home where his white family lived, an idea forming just below the surface of his mind. Mary Ann was out in the side garden, snipping off buttercups with a small pair of scissors. She straightened and stood, willowy as a sapling, holding the yellow flowers in both her hands and looking intently after him as he and the black horse passed. He could feel the look lingering on him after he had gone by, and for a wonder it didn’t feel bad. A lot of poison had drained from the space between them since Catharine’s departure from the household.
Jerry met him at the stable and took the reins of the black horse as Forrest got down. In the last blue light of the evening, a bat flickered across the stable yard as Jerry led Satan into his stall. Forrest went into the house, where he found Mary Ann arranging her flowers in a little clear vase full of water. From that she turned to light the lamp on the sideboard. For the time being there was no house servant to do such tasks, and he felt happy enough that there wasn’t. It put him in mind of when they’d lived leaner, in their first dogtrot cabin down at Hernando.
“Miz Forrest,” he said, “I got me a notion.”
She looked at him coolly, the soft light of the oil flame gilding the down on her left cheek.
“I about had enough of traden in folks,” Forrest said. “Got my eye on a piece down to Coahoma. That’s cotton country. We could build a brick house with white columns out front and live like the big bugs do.”
“All right,” she said. Her voice was cool as her regard. But she might have been hiding a smile as she turned from him.
Forrest walked out onto the front stoop and greeted his brother, John, who sat within the orb of detachment his evening dose of laudanum provided. Above the roofs across the way, the stars were beginning to come out, and another bat flicked between the treetops, snapping up mosquitoes. Forrest breathed into the darkness gathering before him. He felt like a weight had been lifted from him, maybe not all the way, but some. He knew it wasn’t exactly freedom, but he did feel lighter than before.