Faith Plantation, Barbados
I might have been ten, eleven years old—I cannot say for certain—when my first master died.
No one grieved him; in the fields we hung our heads, keening, grieving for ourselves and the estate sale that must follow. He died very old. I saw him only at a distance: stooped, thin, asleep in a shaded chair on the lawn, a blanket at his lap. I think now he was like a specimen preserved in a bottle. He had outlived a mad king, outlived the slave trade itself, had seen the fall of the French Empire and the rise of the British and the dawn of the industrial age, and his usefulness, surely, had passed. On that last evening I remember crouching on my bare heels in the stony dirt of Faith Plantation and pressing a palm at against Big Kit’s calf, feeling the heat of her skin baking up out of it, the strength and power of her, while the red sunlight settled in the cane all around us. Together, silent, we watched as the overseers shouldered the coffin down from the Great House. They slid it rasping into the straw of the wagon and, dropping the rail into place with a bang, rode rattling away.
That was how it began: me and Big Kit, watching the dead go free.
His nephew arrived one morning eighteen weeks later at the head of a trail of dust-covered carriages driven directly from the harbour at Bridge Town. That the estate had not been sold off was, we thought at the time, a mercy. The carriages creaked their slow way up the soft embankment, shaded by palm trees. On a flatbed wagon at the rear of the caravan sat a strange object, draped in canvas, as large as the whipping boulder in the small field. I could not imagine its purpose. All this I remember well, for I was again with Big Kit at the edge of the cane—I rarely left her side in those days—and I saw Gaius and Immanuel stiffly open the carriage door and extend the step. I could see, at the Great House, pretty Émilie, who was my age, and whom I would glimpse some evenings dumping the pans of wash water into the long grass outside the scullery. She descended the first two steps of the verandah and, smoothing out her apron, fell still.
The first man to emerge, carrying his hat in his hands, had black hair and a long, horselike jaw, his eyes darkened by heavy brows. He raised his face as he descended and peered around at the estate and the men and women gathered there. Then I saw him stride back to the curious object and walk around it, inspecting the ropes and canvas. Cradling a hand to his eyes, he turned, and for a frightening moment I felt his gaze on me. He was chewing some soft-textured thing, his jaw working a little. He did not look away.
But it was the second man, the sinister man in white, who seized my attention. This was our new master—we all could see it at once. He was tall, impatient, sickly, his legs bending away from each other like calipers. Under his three-cornered white hat a shock of white hair burst forth. I had a sense of pale eyelashes, an uncooked pallor to his skin. A man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master’s eyes; what I saw in this man’s terrified me. He owned me, as he owned all those I lived among, not only our lives but also our deaths, and that pleased him too much. His name was Erasmus Wilde.
I felt a shudder go through Big Kit. I understood. His slick white face gleamed, the clean white folds of his clothes shone impossibly bright, like a duppy, a ghost. I feared he could vanish and reappear at will; I feared he must feed on blood to keep himself warm; I feared he could be anywhere and not visible to us, and so I went about my work in silence. I had already seen many deaths: I knew the nature of evil. It was white like a duppy, it drifted down out of a carriage one morning and into the heat of a frightened plantation with nothing in its eyes.
It was then, I believe now, that Big Kit determined, calmly and with love, to kill herself and me.
All my childhood I’d had no one; only Big Kit, as she was known in the cane. I loved her and I feared her.
I was around five years old when I angered the quarters-woman and was sent to live in the brutal hut below the dead palm tree, Kit’s hut. On my first evening there, my supper was stolen and my wooden bowl cracked; I was struck hard on the side of my head by a man I did not know, so that I staggered and could not hear. Two little girls spat on me. Their ancient grandmother held me down with her talons biting into my arms and cut my handmade sandals from my feet for the leather.
That was when I first heard Big Kit’s voice.
“Not this one,” she said softly.
That was all. But then some monstrous charge of dark energy, huge, inexorable as a breaker, poured towards us and picked the old woman up by the hair as though she were a boneless scrap of rag, tossing her aside. I stared, terrified. Big Kit just glared down at me with her orange eyes, as if disgusted, and then returned to her stool in the dark corner.
But in the morning I found her squatting beside me in the pale light. She offered her bowl of mash, traced the lines in my palm. “You will have great big life, child,” she murmured. “Life of many rivers.” And then she spat in my hand and closed my fist so that the spit ran between my knuckles. “That is first river, right there,” she said, starting to laugh.
I adored her. She towered over everyone, huge, fierce. Because of her size and because she was a Saltwater, a witch in old Dahomey before being taken, she was feared. She would sow curses into the dirt beds under the huts. Rooks would be found eviscerated, hanging in doorways. For three weeks she forcibly took food from a strong smith’s apprentice each morning and night and ate it in front of him, scooping with her fingers from his bowl, until some understanding was reached between them. In the smouldering fields she would glisten as if oiled, tearing up the wretched earth, humming strange songs under her breath, her flesh rippling. Some nights in the huts she would murmur in her sleep, in the low, thick language of her kingdom, and cry out. No one ever spoke of that, and in the fields the next day she would be all scorched fury, like a blunt axe, wrecking as much as she reaped. Her true name, she once told me, whispering, was Nawi. She had had three sons. She had had one son. She had had no sons, not even a daughter. Her stories changed with the moon. I remember how, some days, at sunrise, she would sprinkle a handful of dirt over her blade and murmur some incantation, her voice husky, as though overcome with emotion. I loved that voice, its rough music. She would suck air through her teeth and squint up her eyes and begin, “When I was royal guard at Dahomey,” or “After I crush the antelope with my hands, like this,” and I would stop whatever task was at hand, and stand listening in wonder. For she was a marvel, witness to a world I could not imagine, beyond the reach of the huts and the vicious fields of Faith.
Faith itself darkened under our new master. In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers. In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat. These were ex-soldiers or old slavers or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils. Then the maimings began. What use could we be, injured so? I saw men limp into the fields, blood streaming down their legs; I saw women with blood-soaked bandages over their ears. Edward had his tongue cut out for backtalk; Elizabeth was forced to eat from a full chamber pot for not cleaning the previous day’s thoroughly. James tried to run away, and to make an example of him, the master had an overseer burn him alive as we watched. Afterwards, in the embers of his pyre, an iron was heated and we led past the charred horror of him, one by one, and were branded a second time.
James’s was the first of the new killings; other killings followed. Sick men were whipped to shreds or hanged above the fields or shot. I was still a boy, and cried at night. But with each new death Big Kit only grunted in grim satisfaction, her orange eyes narrowed and fierce.
Death was a door. I think that is what she wished me to understand. She did not fear it. She was of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free. That was the idea that had come to her with the man in white, like a thread of poison poured into a well.
One night she told me of her intention. She said we would do it quickly. It would not hurt.
“Do it frighten you?” she whispered, where we lay in the hut. “To be dying?”
“Not if it don’t frighten you,” I said bravely. I could feel her arm draped protectively over me in the dark.
She grunted, a long, dark rumble in her chest. “If you dead, you wake up again in your homeland. You wake up free.” I made a little shrug of one shoulder at that, and she felt it, and turned my chin with her fingers. “What is it, now?” she asked. “You don’t believe?”
I did not want to tell her; I feared she would be angry. But then I whispered, “I don’t have a homeland, Kit. My homeland here. So I wake up here, again, a slave? Except you won’t be here?”
“You come with me to Dahomey,” she murmured firmly. “That how it works.”
“Did you ever see them? The dead, waked up? When you in Dahomey?”
“I saw them,” she whispered. “We all saw them. We knew what they were.”
“And they were happy?”
“They were free.”
I could feel the day’s exhaustion descending on me. “What it like, Kit? Free?”
I felt her shift in the dirt, and then she was gathering me in close, her hot breath at my ear. “Oh, child, it like nothing in this world. When you free, you can do anything.”
“You go wherever it is you wanting?”
“You go wherever it is you wanting. You wake up any time you wanting. When you free,” she whispered, “someone ask you a question, you ain’t got to answer. You ain’t got to finish no job you don’t want to finish. You just leave it.”
I closed my heavy eyes, wondering. “Is really so?”
She kissed my hair just behind my ear. “Mm-hmm. You just set down the shovel, and you go.”
Why, then, did she delay? The days passed; Faith grew harsher, more brutal; still she did not kill us. Some presentiment, some warning perhaps, stayed her hand.
One evening she led me out into her little vegetable garden, where we were alone. I saw the sharp, rusted blade of a hoe in her hands, and started to tremble. But she only wished to show me the little carrots beginning to sprout. Another night, she woke me and led me silently out into the darkness, through the long grasses to the dead palm tree, but this too was only to instruct me not to speak of our intentions. “If any hear it, child, we be separated true,” she hissed. I did not understand why we waited. I wanted to see her homeland, I told her. I wanted to walk in Dahomey with her, free.
“But it must be done right, child,” she whispered to me. “Under a right moon. With right words. The gods cannot be summoned otherwise.”
But then the other suicides began. Cosimo cut his own throat with an axe, Adam punctured his wrists using a nail stolen from the smithy. Both were found bled out in the grass behind the huts, one after the other, in the mornings. They were old Saltwaters, like Kit, believers that they would be reincarnated in their ancestral lands. But when young William, who had been born on the plantation, hanged himself in the laundry, Erasmus Wilde himself came out among us.
He walked slowly over the lawns in his dazzling white clothes, an overseer trailing a few steps behind. The overseer wore a tattered straw hat and was pushing a wheelbarrow. The cradle of the barrow held a wooden post, a tangle of grey sacking. They crossed the grass in the harsh sun, pausing just at the edge of the cane, where we had been assembled. In the hot, bright air, the new master studied us.
I could see the flesh on his face and hands, waxen and bloodless. His lips were pink, his eyes a very piercing blue. Slowly he walked the line of our bodies, staring at each of us in turn. I could hear Big Kit breathing roughly above me and I understood she too was frightened. When the master looked at me, I felt the scorch of his gaze and lowered my eyes at once, shivering. The air was stagnant, redolent of sweat.
Then the man in white gestured behind him, to the overseer. That man twisted the handles of the barrow, dumping its load in the dirt.
A murmur passed through us, like a wind.
Sprawled there in the dirt, in a heap of grey clothes, was William’s corpse. His face was a rictus of pain, his eyes bulging, his tongue black and protruding. Some days had passed since his death, and strange things were happening already to his body. He looked corpulent, bloated; his skin had become mottled and spongy. A slow horror filled me.
The master’s voice, when at last he called out to us, was calm, dry, bored.
“What you see here, this nigger, killed himself,” Erasmus Wilde said. “He was my slave, and he has killed himself. He has therefore stolen from me. He is a thief.” He paused, folded his hands at the small of his back. “I understand that some of you believe you will be reborn in your homelands when you die.” He looked as though he might say more, but then he fell silent and, turning abruptly, gestured to the overseer at the barrow.
That man crouched over the body with a large curved skinner’s knife. He reached around and cupped his callused palm under William’s chin and began to saw. We heard the terrible wet flesh tearing, the crunch of the bones, saw the weird, lifeless sag of William’s body as the head came away.
The overseer stood and raised the severed head in both hands. Then he walked back to the barrow and took out the long wooden post. Hammering it into the dry earth, he drove William’s head onto the sharp end.
“No man can be reborn without his head,” the master called out. “I will do this to each and every new suicide. Mark me. None of you will ever see your countries again if you continue to kill yourselves. Let your deaths come naturally.”
I stared up at Kit. She was peering at William’s head on its spike, the bulge of its softening flesh in the sun, and there was something in her face I had not seen in her before.
But that is no beginning. Allow me to begin again, for the record.
I have walked this earth for eighteen years. I am a Freeman now in possession of my own person.
I was born in the year 1818 on that sun-scorched estate in Barbados. So I was told. I had also heard it said I was born in a shackled cargo hold during a frenzied crossing of the Atlantic, aboard an illicit Dutch vessel. That would have been the autumn of 1817. In the latter account my mother died in the difficult birth. For years I did not privilege one origin over the other, but in my first years free I came to suffer strange dreams, ashes of images: Tall, staked wooden palisades, walls of black jungle beyond. Naked men yoked together and stumbling up rotted planks into a dark brig. Was it Gold Coast I dreamed of, the slave fort at Annamaboe? How could that be so, you ask? Ask yourself what you know of your own beginnings, and if your life is so very different. We must all take on faith the stories of our birth, for though we are in them, we are not yet present.
I was a field nigger. I cleared the cane, only my sweat was of value. I was wielding a hoe at the age of two, and weeding, and collecting fodder for the cows, and scooping manure into cane holes with my hands. In my ninth year I was gifted a straw hat and a shovel that I could scarcely lift, and I had felt proud to be counted a man.
I did not know my father.
My first master named me, as he named us all. I was christened George Washington Black—Wash, as I came to be known. With great ridicule, he’d said he glimpsed in me the birth of a nation and a warrior-president and a land of sweetness and freedom. All this was before my face was burnt, of course. Before I sailed a vessel into the night skies, fleeing Barbados, before I knew what it meant to be stalked for the bounty on one’s scalp.
Before the white man died at my feet.
Before I met Titch.
I met him for the first time that very night, the night of William’s desecration, when Big Kit and I were summoned to the Great House to wait at the master’s table.
The strangeness of this request was alarming: a field slave was a black-skinned brute born for hard toil, certainly not a being to be brought inside. We did not know why the master should request us. What were we to him? Kit’s despair had over the hours grown into a silent fury at what she could no longer do to herself and to me. She now began to fear the master had discovered her intent, and that he meant us some cruel and grievous punishment.
Immanuel and young Émilie waded down the soft slope and into the sprawl of huts in their clean white-and-grey house clothes to summon us. Kit rose up from where she sat on a stone in front of our hut, shaking her head in anger.
“Don’t you send Wash up there,” she said. “I go. But you leave the boy.”
“The master he clear,” Immanuel said. “Both you.”
“Hello, Wash,” Émilie said shyly.
“Hello,” I said, my face growing warm.
“They eat before it get dark,” Immanuel said. “You be up right quick. Don’t make neither them wait.”
I had never, in all my childhood, passed through the shaded grove of frangipani and approached the master’s verandah. At dusk I followed Kit up the slope, feeling the pebbles, the cool grass on my feet for the first time. Kit stared stonily up at the house.
The doors stood open. A muscle in my throat fluttered, as if I’d swallowed a moth. I had once crawled under the great chimney in the laundry, twisting my neck to peer up its chute at the square of sky beyond and the clouds scuttling by. But the height of that seemed nothing in comparison with the ceiling here; and at the top, a large glass dome of a window, the faint evening light dropping in a long rope to the floor. Dust was adrift in the air. I saw carved scrollwork over the doors and heavy burgundy drapery, padded green chairs crouching on elegant curved legs. It struck me as impossibly beautiful.
“A fine, fine quiet,” Big Kit whispered, nodding. “Listen.”
We did not dare enter, not with our filthy feet and clothes, stinking—I think now—of sweat and dirt, insects in our hair. We stood uncertain, unhappy. As we had been summoned, we could not go back to the huts, but nor could we bang on the door to announce ourselves. We stared at each other.
At last Gaius, the house porter, came round the corner. I’d come to know him better in the weeks since Erasmus Wilde’s arrival, as he was sent out to the overseers more often with the master’s instructions. Gaius was tall, thin, old as driftwood. His gestures were deliberate and slow, and there was a grace to him we all of us in the huts admired and mocked because of our admiration. He had been handsome once, and in the strong cheekbones and clear forehead one could glimpse a kind of regal deportment, a man elevated beyond the ordinary. To my eyes, he was a kind of surrogate master, a man with the speech and breeding of a white man. I feared him.
He was stiff, unfriendly. But not unkind. “Good evening, Catherine. Young Washington.”
“Gaius,” Big Kit said warily. “Émilie and Immanuel come down to fetch us.” She faltered. “What do he want us for?”
“He the one.”
“Did Immanuel not tell you?”
Big Kit set a huge hand on the top of my skull. I could feel her tense; I knew she feared the master’s wrath. “He say we is to wait his table.”
Frowning, Gaius glanced past us at the twilight as though there might be someone else waiting there. “Then that is what you are to do,” he said. “I am sure he has his reasons. You will wait in the kitchens until you’re called.”
Neither of us moved.
At last Kit said, “Our feet.”
Gaius stared down at the filth caking our bare feet. Then, quite slowly, he opened his jacket and withdrew from the inner pocket of his waistcoat a huge white handkerchief, handing it to Big Kit. “Clean your feet,” he said. “Both of you. Either of you leave footprints on his marble, you’ll be sorry.”
We wiped off our feet, and then he turned and led us through the grand hall. On the far side, we stepped from the cold marble onto parquet flooring; I had never in my life seen such a thing, angles of wood braided to make a miraculous pattern. The air was cool, scented with mint. I felt my fears diminish a little. Big Kit, true, was not at ease. But I wanted to see everything, remember everything, to carry these wonders back with me when I returned to the huts. White lace, silver candlesticks, wood polished to so lustrous a sheen it looked like fresh bread. We moved past rooms filled with ancient rugs and tall old clocks and strange frozen creatures with tawny claws and outraged eyes. I stared and stared, hardly daring to blink.
“Is real, Gaius?” I whispered. “Them animals?”
Gaius stopped to glance at a huge white owl on a perch in an alcove. Its yellow eyes stared unseeing. It did not move. “They were once alive,” he murmured, almost inaudible. “Now they are dead and stuffed. The master is the same.”
“He once alive?” I whispered.
Gaius paused and studied me with his inscrutable expression. Just when I thought he would look away, he gave the faintest of smiles. “So it is said, young Washington.”
I had known Kit to be fierce, an explosive force. But here, walking the halls of Wilde Hall, she too seemed diminished, cowed, anxious. The change in her frightened me more than the frozen beasts in the hall, more than the strange, gleaming luxury surrounding us. I hurried to keep up as Gaius led us deeper into the house.
At last we entered the kitchen. It was a vast room with silver vats at a boil, a wall of heat shimmering in the air. The cook, Maria, turned startled to us, her face dusted in our, her sleeves rolled up. There were two serving maids in the back, wrestling with an enormous canister. I searched for Émilie, but did not see her among the gusts of our and stacks of gravy-stained dishes and large wooden blocks with cubes of peppers and yams. An enormous fire blazed in the great open replace, a glistening bird turning slowly on its chain as it cooked. I stared in amazement at the bounty, and felt something I had not known before wash over me—desire.
“Don’t you even do it, nigger,” Maria said sharply, as my eye caught a plate of pastries near the door.
I looked at her in fear, caught out. Something shifted in her face, softened.
“The time for that is later,” she said in a gentler voice. “When you is cleaning up, you can lick at what’s left over.”
“Is so?” I said.
“But only from the touched food, only when you are scraping their plates,” Gaius added. “It won’t do for you to eat up the fresh food.”
“We get to lick the plates, Kit,” I said, smiling up at her in wonder.
The two of them were speaking as we shuffled in, Big Kit and I carrying trays of rolls and hot dishes of steaming vegetables. On a low buffet at the back wall were the dishes set out for serving that Gaius had described to us. He had warned us to be prompt, attentive, silent. That our hands, in their strange white gloves, should be always present, and our bodies always absent.
I could see how uneasy Big Kit was; she stood quietly furious, as if damning the obviousness of her body, clasping and unclasping her hands. The punishment for our plan to murder ourselves, she knew, would not be gentle. She tried to quiet her face, her gaze slow and inward.
I was terrified too, but I also could not prevent myself from glancing at the master’s plate as he ate, thinking of the sauces there, the hot yellow crusts he dropped in boredom.
I had not ever been so physically near to the master. Under the burnished candlelight he looked as he had in the field—waxy and ill, the same colour as the rind of hard cheese that lay on the table before them. His flesh was slack, tired. As I leaned in to pour the water, my hands shaking, a smell of wet paper seemed to come off his body. I noticed dried blood under his fingernails.
And yet it was to the second man that my eyes kept drifting. I had imagined he would be dark, frightening. He was not. His hair was at his shoulders; he wore a dark-blue frock coat. His fingers were long and thin, a jewelled ring on the index finger of each hand. His feet were planted wide and firmly under him where he sat, as though he might at any moment stand from his seat. And yet he sat very still as I poured the tepid water into his glass, and paused in his speech to give me a fragile smile. He ran a spidery finger down the bridge of his nose, large, arched, the nostrils slight as buttonholes, and continued in his low voice. “I have tried passing sulphuric acid over iron filings. I have tried animal bladders, silk stockings. Paper sacks. Even some of the more preposterous ones, to see if some merit was missed in them. But they were all abandoned quite rightfully, Erasmus. I think nothing works so well as hydrogen, simple hydrogen, and canvas. You should see the heights one can reach—why, ten, twenty thousand feet. It is truly spectacular. The world from up there is, well—it is God’s earth, man.”
The master was chewing and did not glance up from his meat. “But you have not been up.”
“Ah, no. Not myself. Not yet.”
“So you do not know.”
“I have read about it. Others’ reports.”
“And you imagine you will actually make it across the Atlantic in that thing.”
“I will have to undertake some test flights first, but yes.”
The master grunted. “Corvus Peak is a miserable climb. You will not like it in the heat of day.”
The second man, his eyes a stark green, made no answer.
Now the master raised his face. “You will be wanting for me to spare some slaves to carry your apparatus, I expect. What?”
The dark-haired man furrowed his brow.
“What? Speak up, man.”
The man paused, his knife and fork held above his plate. He met the master’s eye. “These potatoes,” he said instead, “they are most unusual, do you not find? The flavour is passable, but I do prefer our white varietal in Hampshire.”
“Well, I am pleased you consent to break with convention and dine at this lesser table.” The master wiped at his mouth with the edge of the tablecloth.
“You are too easily offended, Erasmus. It is potatoes.”
“My potatoes,” the master scowled. “Potatoes selected by me. It always was your passion to thumb your nose at all of my preferences. You and Father were always alike in this way. Damned judgmental.”
I was surprised at this mention of a father, and glanced at the second man. I had not thought he bore any sort of relation to the master, but now the resemblance rose to sight, like a watermark: the brisk, bright-coloured eyes, the oddly plump lower lips, the way each man punctuated the ends of certain phrases with a languid sweep of the hand, as if the gesture were being performed underwater.
The master caught the second man glancing uneasily across at Big Kit, and he laughed a sharp laugh. “What? The sow? My language cannot offend her. She has no sensibilities to offend, Christopher.”
The second man set his knife and fork quietly down.
“No matter,” said the master, waving a slow, impatient hand. “You were speaking of your improvement on Father’s air balloons, the great heights you will reach.”
“Well, they are not exactly air balloons. But yes—”
“And now you want great weights.”
The brother laughed easily, a strange sound. “I do require a second man to ride the contraption with me. For the ballast, you see. It cannot be done alone.”
“And it is my great weight you require?” The master’s eyes had soured.
“Erasmus, your greatness extends to all of your attributes.”
“You are saying I am fat, then?”
The man paused, met the master’s eyes.
“Perhaps you require something of lesser weight.” The master turned sharply; he gestured at me where I stood. I felt the water pitcher in my hands begin to tremble. I dared not meet his eye. “Why not take a nigger calf up with you? He should be light enough.”
“Leave it be, Erasmus.”
“Would that be suggestion, or instruction?”
The man took a long, slow breath. “I will never understand why you seek offence in everything I say. It is only the two of us here, and I have come for a limited stay. Would our time not be better enjoyed if we tried to understand each other?”
“Do I lack understanding?”
“What you lack,” the brother began, but then he broke off and did not continue his thought. Instead, he said, “I would not have this conversation now, in front of the help.”
“They are not the help, Titch. They are the furniture.”
The brother exhaled, rolling his eyes slightly.
“You are too soft, little brother. How is it you expect to get through a whole year here if already you are weeping at profanities used before a nigger? Heavens. All Father’s regard for you would dry up at once if he saw how soft you are become. Indeed, why did you insist on following me to this wretched place at all, given your convictions? Do you mean to steal away all my slaves while I am asleep?”
The man smiled irritably. “I have asked you to leave it.”
I was astonished to see the master suddenly smile also, and start to laugh. “So there is a man in you somewhere after all. More claret?”
His laughter, I believe, was genuine. In that moment I understood I would not ever make sense of the master, for there was not sense to be made.
As he was extending the decanter of claret, he spilled a slow red stain onto the white tablecloth. I watched it spread, like blood, seeping outwards. The colour of it, its deep redness, seemed horrifying and beautiful to me. But Big Kit shuffled silently forward, a large, dark shadow, and began dabbing at the stain at once with a white towel.
The master took no notice.
The brother cleared his throat. “I have gone through three shirts today so far. It is a devil’s climate.”
The master only gave a slight puff of his cheeks. He had not finished his thought. “This is rough work. It requires veins of steel.
What, was it some fourteen, fifteen years ago only, the Easter Rebellion? Niggers set the whole bloody island a re. Vigilance is paramount, Titch. Why, I went into Bridge Town this afternoon with John Willard, he and I went up to the club.”
“The man at dinner the other night? The plump one with the red, sweating face?”
“Nay, the shorter one, the yellow-haired one in spectacles. He was a bookkeeper at Drax but found himself frustrated there—did more hunting down of the niggers than keeping ledgers, I think. He still has strong words for the management there. Why keep feeding a man of fifty who can scarce stand, when a boy of ten can cut twice the cane? said he. Willard is a man of very economical turn, I think. It is a question of wastage, said he. Indeed. The best-respected planter can walk out amongst his slaves with a ledger under his arm and just the sight of it can make a nigger skunk his drawers. He has seen it himself. You, boy. Tell me, would you soil yourself to see my brother here with a ledger?”
I could feel the master’s pale eyes on me.
“Boy,” he barked.
I did not lift my face. “Yes, sir.”
The master made a flustered noise, as if my answer did not please. “My point is, without a little grit, I will have mayhem. My task, Christopher, is to contribute to the grit. I care nothing of your science, so long as it does not interfere with my running of the estate.”
“How near are we to Haiti?” the brother asked, distractedly scraping at his plate. “The first lighter-than-air craft was launched from there—the first launch of such a craft in the Americas, I believe.”
The master paused, frowning. “Do you imagine this is how I wanted to pass my life? Fussing after niggers’ filth, stinking of sugar all day? I did not seek the responsibility out, but it found me all the same. Unlike you, I am not Father’s favourite and cannot simply roam about the world dreaming up silly contraptions. I must actually do what family duty demands.”
“You are the eldest,” the man Christopher said. “It does fall to you, brother.”
“At breakfast”—the master narrowed his eyes—“something you said then . . . it comes to me. Tell me—does Mother know you’re here?”
The brother paused, and stared steadily across at the master.
“You know she will go out of her wits, don’t you? All this time we have been together, and you have said nothing. All this time. Well, you simply cannot keep disappearing on her like this. Where does she think you are?”
“How can I presume to know anything that woman thinks?” The brother shrugged. “Paris, perhaps. London. I might have mentioned something about visiting Grosvenor.”
The master faintly shook his head, laughed in disgust.
“She would have poisoned me off the idea, wouldn’t she?”
“And so you thought you’d simply catch me at Liverpool and sail out? Just like that? No word of notice at all?”
“Sometimes one needs to disappear a little. It is good for the soul.”
“All this suffering, just for your damned flying rag.”
The man gave the master a level look. “It is not a rag, Erasmus.
It is a Cloud-cutter.”
“And what purpose does it serve? Will it cure mankind of its ills? Will it release me from the bounds of this godforsaken island?” Big Kit was still dabbing at the stain on the tablecloth, her eyes carefully averted, and now the master noticed her. “Leave off with that,” he snapped.
Big Kit, nervous, took a few last swipes at the stain.
“I said leave off!” The master reached for his plate and, half-standing, struck Big Kit full in the face with it.
A tremendous crack rang out, blood and shards of china everywhere.
My bones jumped up in me, and I just caught the water urn before it slipped from my fingers. I stared at the master’s hands, the fresh blood on his thumb. I wanted to rush to Kit’s side but only stood gripping the jug, the lemon seeds inside clicking like teeth.
“Oh hell, I have cut myself,” said the master, swiping his hands on the tablecloth. Dropping the broken plate, he turned and strode from the room. “Maria! Maria! Heaven’s sake, where are you?”
The silence was terrible. I could hear the blood dripping through Big Kit’s fingers, where she held her face.
The second man, the brother, hesitated. At last he stood and came over to Kit, his napkin held out before him. “Here, lower your hands.”
Big Kit lowered her hands.
“Turn your head. There. Like so.”
The man was taller than any white man I had seen, as tall as Big Kit herself, and I felt his eyes pass over me as he dabbed at Kit’s face. “What is your name?” he said to me.
I glanced helplessly at Kit, met her steady, dark eyes, glanced back.
I heard rustling in the doorway, and I dropped to my knees and began picking up the bloody shards of plate. I kept my eyes on the mess on the parquet.
“For heaven’s sake, Christopher, leave it,” the master said. “Don’t make a mess of yourself. They’ll clean it up. It’s what they do.” He sounded almost pleased now, relaxed. “Listen, the custard and tansies will be along shortly. I have some hope that they will be passable. Come, man, sit down.”
Big Kit’s nose was broken.
I did not cry. Together we mopped up her blood in silence, my eyes on the floor, listening to the master absently scrape his shoes over the parquet to clean the mess off them.
The custards appeared in a warm, sugary glow. While the master ate heartily, his brother pushed his plate away, requesting instead another glass of claret. Night deepened at the windows, and I glanced up to see our reflections there, illuminated and clear, as if some other slaves stood miserable and stone-faced across from us. I searched for my eyes but could not recognize them in the boy who stood in my place, white-gloved, still. When at last the master and his brother had retired, and we had helped scrub out the enormous vats down in the scullery and stacked the steaming dishes to dry, Gaius allowed us to pick through the half-eaten food scraped onto a large platter. I had lost my enthusiasm for it, but Big Kit threw me a furious glance and then began eating fast, scooping the food with two forked-out fingers and chewing crookedly with one side of her mouth. She would wince as she did so, then open her eyes in angry surprise, then lean forward again to scoop up more food. I tasted little. I stared at her nose, refusing to forget.
Only later, as Big Kit and I descended through the blare of moonlight to the huts, did she start to talk. “Don’t you never not take what yours,” she hissed. “You was promised that food. So you take it.”
“He shouldn’t have hit you, Kit.”
“This?” She lifted her face. The nose was bleeding again. “I thought he throw us in the scullery fire for trying to get back to Dahomey. This, this nothing, boy. You never seen a bit of blood?”
Of course I had. We had lived in blood for years, my entire life. But something about that evening—the gleaming beauty of the master’s house, the refinements, the lazy elegance—made me feel a profound, unsettling sense of despair. It was not only William’s mutilation that day, knowing his head stared out over the fields even now, in the darkness. What I felt at that moment, though I then lacked the language for it, was the raw, violent injustice of it all.
“Is that it, then?” I said in a rough voice. I turned to look up at her in the moonlight. “We don’t get to go to Dahomey together?”
She paused and looked at me, very still.
“Kit? We just give in, then?”
“That’s right,” she said. “And you forget I ever said anything. Put it out your mind.”
I nodded, confused by her anger, feeling I had done something wrong. “Our shirts is a mess, Kit,” I said miserably. “We going to get in some trouble for it.”
It was then we heard, at the same moment, a rustling along the path behind us. We turned as one, Big Kit stepping slightly in front of me.
But it was only Gaius, still dressed in his fine service clothes, making his stiff way uncertainly down in the dark. When he saw us, he gave a quick, polite nod, his face unreadable.
“Gaius,” Big Kit muttered. “Don’t tell me they is sitting down to eat again?”
He shook his head. “The master has retired. He is inebriated.” When we stared at him blankly, he added, “Drunk. Master Erasmus is quite drunk. How is your nose, Catherine?”
“Still attach to my face.”
A moment passed. Big Kit said, “You ain’t come down here to ask after my nose. You lost now?” She ran a tired hand over her neck, her shoulder.
“Ah. No. You should go on to sleep now, Catherine. Your night is finished.”
She started to turn away, and I with her. Then, setting a big hand on my shoulder, she turned back. “My night finish? Wash’s night ain’t?”
Gaius gave me his strange, cold, unreadable stare. “It would seem not.”
“Mister Wilde has asked for him. He has asked you to attend to him in his rooms, Washington. This evening. Now. Do you understand?”
I did not. “The master?” I said, staring up in fear. What could he want with me?
“Not the master,” Gaius said calmly, “the master’s brother, Mister Wilde. The other man at table this evening, the dark-haired one. He wishes for you to go out to his quarters.”
“You tell him the boy is sleeping, Gaius,” Big Kit said sharply. “You say you never did find him.”
Gaius wet his lips. “I can’t do that, Catherine. You know I can’t.”
She stepped forward. “He ain’t goin’ up.”
She stared at Gaius, but he did not inch, only looked coolly up into her face, waiting. At last he said, softly, “It isn’t for us to stop, Catherine. I’ll be needed back at the house, but you make sure Washington comes up.” And then to me he did something most strange: pinching up his fine trousers, he squatted on his haunches to look me square in the face. “Don’t keep Mister Wilde waiting, Washington. He is the master’s brother. You do not want him unhappy with you.”
“I never give him no reason to be.”
“What do he want of him?” said Kit.
“What do they ever want?” Gaius said softly, bitterly. “He wants him to do what he says and not ask why.” He rose and started to go, but then he looked back at Big Kit and said, mysteriously, “It’s an opportunity, Catherine. The boy has a chance to find safe harbour. If Mister Wilde grows fond of him—”
“Don’t you even finish that thought,” Kit said, but her voice was low, pinched.
“It gives the boy a chance,” Gaius said. His face was lost in shadow, and though I could not be certain, he sounded rather sad.
“Just get, Gaius,” Kit said. She took a threatening step towards him. “You just get now.”
The man left.
I stood a long while beside Big Kit in the bright light of the moon. At last we started walking. She seemed distressed, and I thought she must be angry because of her nose, because she did not want me to be struck also. To ease her fears I said, “Don’t you worry, Kit. He hit my nose, I won’t cry or nothing. I be just like you. You see.”
But this did not seem to help. In the water barrel behind the huts, I splashed my face and arms, rubbed at my hair, felt the fine coolness of the night-chilled water on my skin. When I opened my eyes, I saw Kit, looming up in the darkness of the hut’s shadow. She stepped forward.
“He try to touch you, Wash,” she whispered, “you put this through his eye and just keep on pushing.”
I felt her press something into my palm. I looked down. It was a nail. A long, thick, heavy iron nail hammered out in the smithy. I stood with my hand open, the nail on it warm from the heat of her st. I glanced up at Kit, but she was already turning away.
I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.
I walked slowly, my heart pounding. I knew what Big Kit would have me do, but the thought of it terrified me. The path led around to the back field of Wilde Hall and into the unlit waste there at the edge of the trees. The master’s brother had taken up residence in an old overseers’ quarters—a long, low wooden building with a deep cellar that had been used for storing goods, and had not been inhabited for many years. Some of the slaves would tell stories of past horrors there. Some said on moonless nights cries could be heard from that cellar still.
I was shaking. Lanterns had been lit at the edge of the verandah, and I stopped in the open doorway, peering in, hesitant, afraid to call out. No servant came to greet me. I gripped that nail tightly, staring. In the large whitewashed rooms beyond, not an uncluttered surface was to be found. On every table, on every inch of floor space, in piles, sat strange stick-like contraptions, long-spined scopes with legs like grasshoppers, plates hanging from chains.
At last, when nothing happened, I knocked softly, my hand trembling. A moth battered against one of the lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
“Who is it?” a voice called sharply. “Is that you, boy? Come. Come in here.”
I took a hesitant step in. And then I saw him, Mister Wilde, standing at the far window of the long room. He was not facing me; he was bent double, his shoulders hunched. I let my eyes take in the strangeness of his house, the windowsills strewn with velvet- lined boxes, their lids flipped open, gleaming instruments laid out within. Some held wooden cylinders with lenses at each end, like the spyglass used by the old ship’s captain who had worked as an overseer for a time—but these were stranger, different. As I passed a dining table, I saw vials of seeds, jars of ordinary dirt, powders in spills across the mahogany. The floor creaked under me as I approached, papers strewn everywhere.
“Mister, sir?” said I.
My fist clamped tight around the iron nail.
And it was this Mister Wilde saw, at once. He nodded from his terrible height. “What is it you have there? A blade? A nail?” He frowned down at me.
I started to tremble. Of course he knew. The masters knew everything.
“Well, set it down and approach. Set it there.” He pointed to a stack of papers on the floor beside me.
What could I do? I set the nail down. Knowing the fact of it, there, undeniable, was worth my life.
“Closer,” he said, impatient. “Here, hold this steady, like so. We haven’t much time.”
He try to touch you, Wash, Big Kit’s voice came back to me. Through his eye. Just keep on pushing.
I wanted to run. But he had already turned his attention back to whatever was before him.
“Make haste,” he called. “Tell me, child, have you ever witnessed a harvest moon through a reflector scope?”
My voice seemed to stick to my ribs.
He looked up from his labours and his green eyes fixed me in place. “You must see it to believe it. The moon is not as we think it to be. Here.” He shifted to one side. On a golden stand sat a long wooden cylinder angled out the window. The near end was tipped in glass.
“Set your eye here.”
I did as I was told. What I saw was a terrible blackness. Kit had explained, as I had readied myself to come here, the unspeakable acts done to boys by the overseers; and as I bent down and set my eye against the cold brass rim of the object, I felt exposed, terrified. I did not know what ugliness must follow, but I understood what Big Kit did not—that I could not fight this man, who was so much bigger than I, that violence was not in my blood. I shut my eyes, and waited.
I felt his breath, soft, near to my ear. He said, “Do you see it, boy?”
What could I say? I did not know his meaning.
“Yes, Mister Wilde, sir,” said I.
“Stunning, is it not?”
“Oh, yes, Mister Wilde, sir,” said I.
He made a noise of pleasure. “Do you see the markings? The craters? It is an entire planet, son, hanging in our eld of gravity. Imagine walking that ground, pacing the edges of those craters. No foot has walked that ground before us, ever. It is innocent of all we are.”
He tapped my shoulder then, that I should step back, and squinted his own eye against the eyepiece. And then the strange man laughed.
“But you have seen nothing,” he said.
His face was still screwed to the contraption, and now he reached around to a small dial and began to turn it with the tips of his fingers. “It is a reflector scope,” he said, “of my own design. Based, of course, on the fine Dutch models of the sixteenth century. But rather more compact, I think. Now, there,” he said, stepping back. “Have a look now.”
Oh, what I saw then. The moon was huge, as orange as the yolk of a goose egg. And clearly etched upon it were deep craters and ridges, just as Mister Wilde had said. It was, I would later think, a land without tree or shrub or lake, a land without people. An earth before the good Lord began to fill it, an earth of the third day.
I could not stop myself, and breathed a sigh of amazement.
Again Mister Wilde laughed, this time pleased. “Now, boy, tell me. Why does a harvest moon rise thirty minutes later each day, as opposed to the fifty we are accustomed to seeing at other times of the year?”
He regarded me, expressionless.
“Tell me, do you think it is because its orbit is parallel to the horizon at this time of year, so that the earth does not have to turn as far?” said he.
I stared at him, anxious. I sensed that very gently, very faintly, he was mocking me.
“Ah,” he went on. “But what a conundrum.”
We were both still standing at the open window, but now he turned and began to write very quickly in a large open ledger on a stand at his elbow. He was silent a moment, and then, with his hand still scribbling, he said, “What is your name, boy?”
I lowered my face. “Wash, sir.”
“Washington. George Washington Black, sir.”
He looked up from his ledger. “I had an uncle ransomed by the Americans when they were fighting for their republic. Came to quite admire them, he did. Well, young George Washington, shall we cross our Delaware?”
When I continued to stare at him, uncomprehending, he made some further notes in his ledger, chuckling to himself. “Our Delaware,” he mumbled happily. He double-checked the positioning of the dial on his scope and wrote something else. He raised his eyes again. “Christopher Wilde,” he said, offering, I understood, his own name. “But you will call me Titch. It is what I am called by those closest to me. I was ill as a boy, you see, and became very tiny for a period—in any case, the name stuck. Over the years I have grown to embrace it. It will be strange to you at first, I am sure, but it is a fine sight more fitting than Mister Wilde. Mister Wilde is my father. And, as I have been constantly reminded by my mother, I am not he. Have you brought your things? Are they still on the porch?”
I could not imagine his meaning.
“Did the man not tell you? Well.” He gave a quick, faint smile and lowered his hands from the ledger. “You must be wondering what on earth you are doing here at this hour. You are to live here with me, Washington, as my manservant. There is much to be organized, I grant you. But you will find me an easy man to satisfy. Your real task, you see, will be to assist in my scientific endeavours. Do not concern yourself about them now. Not tonight. Tonight we shall get you settled. In the morning you shall clean all this somewhat and then we will set to.”
I must have worn a look of absolute confusion, for he paused.
“You do not object to these arrangements?” he said.
The very notion of objecting to anything had never, of course, crossed my mind. I stared at him in horror. “No sir, Mister Titch, sir,” I whispered.
“Titch,” he corrected. “Just Titch will do.”
“Excellent.” He gave me a swift, assessing look. “Yes. Yes, you are precisely the size that I need. The weight, you see, that is the key to the Cloud-cutter.”
I had hardly dared to breathe, desperately imagining he had forgotten the nail. But no sooner had he finished making this last strange remark than he crossed to the nail and picked it up.
“Ferrous,” he murmured, and then peered up at me with an unfathomable look. “We learned to work iron rather late, I have been told. A good friend of mine in the Royal Society believes we worked the purer metals first. It makes some sense, does it not? And yet we do not value iron as we value the pure metals.”
He lifted the nail into the candlelight and held it delicately. “This will be of some use, I am sure. It could be used to nail me to my cross.”
When I made no answer, he smiled, and the strangeness of that smile, its lack of malice, left me confused. And because I did not understand, I felt a deep, cold fear.
“That will be all, Washington.” Distracted, he started turning back to his ledger. But then he paused and, coming towards me, very gently handed me the nail.
“There is a bed in the far room, Washington,” he said. “Sleep easy. Sleep well.”
When I awoke, at first dawn, I was still clutching that nail.
I understood at once two things. First, that I would not be returning to Kit, and our hut, and her dark, powerful presence. And second, that she had known this even then, the night before, as I was being drawn away.
I stood in the half dark of the strange, small room, my skin pimpling with cold, feeling very small and alone. The air stank of sap, as though green timber had once been housed there. I rubbed my bare shoulder, my joints strangely out of place. The linens lay tangled in a grey twist. In all my years I had slept on nothing but a dirt floor, and throughout the night I had kept jolting awake, startled by the soft collapse of the mattress.
The strange house might have been deserted. I arose, and went to press my ear to the door. I took a step back, and stood waiting in the centre of the room with my arms at my sides. For I was alarmed by the calm, waiting for the door to bang open, for the man Titch to bark instructions at me. The minutes passed; no one came.
To the right of the door, on a stand, sat a basin of water. Its surface was flecked with dust, a silvery-green fly floating in it. Just beside the bowl lay a small white cloth, along with a little wooden stick with bristles in it, and a tin with a fanciful picture of cherries. I slid a fingernail under the rusting lid and sniffed: a chalky, scratchy smell, like when two warm rocks are pounded together.
I was an innocent, true, but I was no fool. I understood I was to clean myself and make myself presentable, as the house slaves must do; but these very instruments appeared torturous in their mystery. At last I picked up the linen and, wetting it, wiped at my face.
I was astonished at the brownish-red grime that came off. I scrubbed harder: along the walls of my nose, behind my ears, I squatted and washed between my toes and stood and rubbed the folds of my neck. The water had turned a quite beautiful, quite astonishing black. I stared at it in wonder, my skin tingling.
Still no one came for me. I felt an increasing dread. Surely my presence was required someplace, surely I was late for some task?
I slipped the long fang of the nail under the mattress for safe-keeping and went out into the corridor.
“Mister Titch, sir?” I called, my voice too loud in the stillness. “Sir?”
The air was still and hot, and smelled of some nutty substance, earthy and edible, and of freshly washed stone. Peering down the hall, I saw a bright room already filling with sun, dust turning in the white light. A window glowing with sunlight. I entered the room, and the tattered burgundy rug under my naked toes was like some stiff, dead creature. I shuddered. Stepping back, I moved quietly to the next doorway.
And then I saw him.
He stood alone in his shirt sleeves, in the bare kitchen, his back to the window. A plate of greyish eggs sat on the table beside him. How tall and thin he looked, how pink. He was reading an opened sheaf of papers, and in his slender hands he rotated and picked apart the shell of an egg. He did not sense my presence. I was afraid to interrupt him, and so I stood, gaping, nervously observing his thicket of black hair, the way he popped the peeled egg into his mouth, his quick, irritable chewing. He had, I noted, a fine white scar cutting up from either corner of his mouth and across his cheeks to his ears, as if a thread had been set on his tongue and yanked upwards. It gave the impression of a crack.
He looked sharply up.
“Washington,” he said.
I flinched, smiling in alarm.
He clapped his hands together, bits of eggshell falling from his fingers onto a chopping block. “Well? Are you quite rested?”
I began to nod in apology, but he was already speaking again.
“Very good, then. Come, come. Are you skilled at all in laundering? No, I’d thought not. I have sent for one of Erasmus’s domestics to deliver your livery this morning, and I shall request she take the time to school you in the laundry, among other things. I do not suppose you to have any knowledge of English cuisine? Oh, how blessed you are. That is a joke, Washington. I prefer a French kitchen myself, but I understand it to be beyond the means of Bridge Town. Therefore, we must make do with the English. There is one salvation, one meal for which I had all the ingredients: I have taken the liberty of preparing for us this morning a light hollandaise. It is one of my most skilled recipes. My secret? The juice of two limes and a touch of Ceylon ginger. I wager you will taste no finer hollandaise in Amsterdam herself. Now, listen, I brought back many spices from my journeys in the East—these you will find in the cupboards. You must use them liberally. I have grown so dependent—I can eat nothing without them. Everything here has the taste of walking stick.” He paused. “I make only one restriction. And that is, you are never to use sugar. I will not abide it. You will find none in my larder, and I want none brought over from my brother’s residence.”
What was I to make of this stream of language? Mister Titch took me by the shoulder and firmly—if gently—steered me into the adjoining room, which had been set with a large mahogany table and six mismatched chairs. I stared at the two white plates, set facing each other.
“Sit,” he gestured, and, seeing my confusion, smiled in vague exasperation and sat himself. “I do not intend to dine while you watch, Washington, hovering over me like a murderer. Sit. It is not a request.”
Moistening my lips, I sat at table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantation, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.
He took up his fork; I took up mine. I held it clumsily, in a loose fist.
An eerie, pale orb of sauce lay at the centre of each of our plates.
Mister Titch began to eat, very deliberately, as if to school me. “Erasmus has loaned you to me for the duration of my time here. I trust this suits you.” He paused, nodded with seriousness to the fork in my hand, and waited.
I scooped up a dollop of the hollandaise, ate it. I did not betray my disgust.
He smiled. “How shocked my mother would be to see you seated at table with me.” He laughed a single sharp laugh at the thought of her imagined reaction. “Well. I’ve hardly brought you here only to dine. You shall become my assistant. I am hoping you will have intelligence enough to grasp a few simple skills that will be useful to me.”
“Yes, Mister Titch, sir.” I had no idea of his meaning; I offered him, simply, what I hoped he expected to hear.
He took up an enormous forkful of hollandaise. “Excellent,” he said, his mouth full.
I made no response.
“Your old master, Richard Black—he was our uncle, our mother’s elder brother,” he continued. “When he passed away, all his estates came down to my brother, including Faith Plantation. Erasmus had hoped, I suppose, that my father might be around to offer his counsel. But Father, he is a true man of science. It is not in his nature to be running estates, getting after tenants’ rents, the like. Indeed, even when he was home, at Granbourne, that task had already fallen to Erasmus. Father spends much of his time away on research trips. At this very moment, in fact, he is on an extensive voyage to the Arctic. He has been from home a year already, and will stay away two more at least.” He sighed. “I don’t suppose Erasmus actually enjoys his responsibilities. But he has a good head for numbers and a winning way with people when he makes the effort, which, I confess, is rarely.”
Mister Titch took two swift bites, swiping at his mouth as he chewed. “With Uncle Richard now gone, Erasmus has to run not only our Granbourne, but Uncle’s Sanderley, and his Hawksworth also. Faith Plantation, too. It is my brother’s plan, I think, to spend most of his time here, in West India, with only periodic trips back to England. It is Faith which needs the most nurturing, says he. Which simply means that it is Faith that supplies the others their money.”
I blinked and blinked, and did not fully meet his eye. I was surprised by his great need to talk, as though he had gone several years without companionship.
“Our family fortunes have been in decline some years now, given the expense of Father’s scientific pursuits. But lo and behold, Uncle Richard’s entailment has brought us wealth again.” He sighed bitterly.
I could understand almost none of this. Mister Titch sensed this, and set down his fork with a frown.
“Yes?” said he.
I said nothing, terrified.
“Go on,” he said more gently.
I dipped my head, but I did not speak.
“You are wondering, I think, why I have come when clearly I do not have to be here,” he said, though I had wondered no such thing. “Well, now I am come, I wake every day asking that very thing.” He smiled. “A joke, Washington. In truth, I wanted to run away, and I needed a place to run to. So one morning I simply packed my things and set out for Liverpool without telling anyone. I knew Erasmus would be sailing before month’s end, and I stormed his rooms and made the case for allowing me to join him. The West Indies—how much there is to learn! What a rare and miraculous opportunity! I had done much research about wind currents in the northwestern hemisphere, and it occurred to me that here might be the perfect place to launch the aerostat I’d half-heartedly designed. And so I revisited the designs in earnest, and spent the weeks before the crossing amassing the materials for transport.”
He ate several more bites, chewing slowly. “It helps that I require very little in the way of creature comforts to survive—just my instruments, a little food now and again. Shelter needn’t be fancy, and I can get on quite well without manservants, providing I have an able assistant at hand. Indeed, before coming here, I was in Istanbul some seven months with only a local boy to attend me. Do you know that in Istanbul the ladies veil their faces? I tell it true. Quite bewitching.”
What an odd man this was, who had a mother and yet so little regard for her, and still seemed to me warm enough in his person.
“Now, on to more practical matters,” Mister Titch continued, slapping his slender hands together over his empty plate. “Cooking, laundry—these are not to be neglected. But your true work, as I have mentioned, will be to aid me in my experiments. You are precisely the size for my Cloud-cutter. Ballast is key, you understand. I can see by your intelligent eyes that you might be able to learn a fact or two, though I understand my intellectual questions are not so easily absorbed. Yes, we shall get along together rather fine, I think. You will do very well. In fact—” He rose suddenly, and strode over to the sideboard, where he snatched up a paper and came to my end of the table, leaning close.
I could hear the whistle of breath in his throat, smell the cuttlefish stink of soap on his wrists. I thought of the black nail, lying like a fine blade under the mattress.
But Mister Titch only smoothed out the paper on the table before me, the onionskin crackling as he ran his fingers along it. And then he did something wonderful.
From somewhere within the lining of his clothes he withdrew a small stub of pencil. He drew, very quickly, an enormous smooth ball in a kind of webbing. I had never seen anything like it. He sketched in the shadows and the light, and the ball seemed to lift from the page. There were ropes falling from it, and beneath the orb he drew in a fantastical boat, with two fronts, and oars hanging out into the air.
I had never seen such artistry. I stared at the paper in amazement. And suddenly I knew that I wanted—desperately wanted— to do it too: I wanted to create a world with my hands.
When I raised my eyes, Mister Titch’s own were shining. “What say you?” he said.
It is a wonder, I thought, an absolute wonder. I said only, “Nice, sir.”
“I have been re-engineering it some three years.” He took the paper from me and held it up to the light. “My father hazarded a similar design some thirty years ago, but he never troubled beyond an initial conception. My father has, well—he would be much astonished at what I have fashioned here. He thought his own creation too unstable. The gases, you see. But how the science of aero- station has changed since his day. I believe mine will actually fly, and for a goodly distance.”
He turned suddenly to me, making a noise low in his throat. “Ah, but of course—you are unlettered. Well, we must attempt to remedy that, if we possibly can. You can hardly assist me without your letters. I will need you to record measurements, equations, outcomes, I will need you to read them back to me in the evenings.”
“Yes, Mister Titch, sir.”
He paused, frowned at me. “Come now. What did I say about that? What are you to call me?”
“Very good. All right.”
I stared up at his glistering green eyes, the lashes matted, black as the legs of flies. And my smile was a smile of terror.