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CAROLINE COUNTY, VIRGINIA COLONY
MASTER BILLY CLARK, THE YOUNGEST OF THE SIX SONS, SAT in a bright, warm rectangle of September sunshine on the waxed wood floor of the nursery and played with the gray wooden horse with red saddle and wheels that his Papa had carved and painted and given to him on his third birthday. He rolled it a few inches on the floor by pulling its string, and thought about the real horses in the stable, about how they smelled and blew their noses. But most of his mind was on something far away and outside, and most often he was gazing at the sky outside the west window, seeming to listen for those songs or sounds that only a child can hear.
He saw the sunlit blur of his blond eyelashes, and heard, in the shadowy part of the room beyond his island of sunshine, the pleasant voices of his oldest sister, Annie, and his Mama, who had baby sister Frances Eleanor at her breast. The baby made wet sounds and said, “Ng, ng,” in her throat, and the women’s rocking chairs creaked.
They were talking again about that thing called Annie’s wedding, which was to be soon. Annie talked about it all the time now, with joy and fear in her voice. The boy didn’t understand much about it and was not very interested in it. But he liked the music of their voices in the room.
He was always enveloped in the voices of his family. Their voices were always around him like a comforter of many colors. Even when his Papa and his older brothers were out in the barns and fields and woods, and his sisters were elsewhere in the house, he could hear their voices, and the sounds of what they were doing, and know where they were. Right now he could hear his Papa’s deep voice outside below the window, with the murmuring voice of Cupid the skinny slave man, and the thunk, thunk of a mallet striking wood. And …
He frowned, and listened hard again for that faraway something, trying to hear through the spinning shrill of the locusts. His Mama would always say he was like a dog listening for summer thunder. Something not quite a sound, something in the sunny distance beyond the meadow gate, had at last softly troubled his inner ear, and his heartbeat sped up a little and he looked at the blue sky over the yellow-green treetops.
But he could not tell yet. He turned back to his little wooden horse. He picked it up in his right hand and with his left he reached for a large ball, a ball made of a dried, inflated pig bladder painted blue and green. He put the wheels of the wooden horse on the surface of the ball and made it roll, as if the horse were walking around the world. Then he put them down and listened hard again, now with his eyes shut so he could hear even better. His Mama and sister were still talking, and the baby was still groaning and sucking, and his Papa and the Negro were still talking and hammering down in the driveway, and the locusts were still shrilling, but now Billy knew something was coming, something out beyond the meadow gate, though he could not yet really hear it, and he was growing excited, and behind the bright orange of his sunny eyelids he began to see a remembered face, a pair of dark blue eyes like his own.
“Mama!” he said. His eyes were open wide.
Ann Rogers Clark turned to him. “Aye, son?”
“Jo jee common!”
“Say what? Georgie’s comin’? Nay, Billy, I think not. Georgie’s far, far yonder,”—she nodded toward the west—“out behind the mountains, where th’ Indians are. Y’know that.”
He shook his head and frowned. “Jo jee common,” he insisted.
“Mought be he’s right?” black-haired Annie suggested. “He always knows where we all are. Uncanny-like.”
“I know. But … No. George wouldn’t come over the mountains now. Not with harvest so close. Not if ’e grows twenty bushel o’ corn to the acre out yonder, as he claims. Though that sounds a tall tale to me.”
“But,” said Annie, “he’d come home for my wedding!”
“Sure and he might, if he knew of’t. But he doesn’t.”
The boy had abandoned his ball and horse and was standing now at the window with his little hands gripping the sill, looking and listening out over the plantation.
The only people he could see outside were his Papa and Cupid. They were inserting poles lengthwise through two hogsheads of tobacco. These poles would be axles when the barrels were pulled to market by oxen along the rolling-road.
Mrs. Clark and Annie were talking of weddings again, but the woman, bemused, was watching the boy. It was strange how he always just knew where everyone was. Now and then it proved embarrassing, as when he’d turn up brother Johnny romancing some wench or other under a haymow or in the barn loft. It was strange, that special sense of Billy’s, and it was strange about his dream
Mrs. Clark began rocking her chair again while the baby sucked. She saw how the pressure of the baby’s mouth mottled and wrinkled the tired skin of her teat. Twenty-three years she’d been bearing and nursing her children, and now one of them, her own namesake, was about to marry and begin the same great, absorbing, demanding, body-and-soul-consuming occupation. For Mrs. Clark, this was a bittersweet time. Now she returned her gaze to Annie’s flawless oval face, her wide-set brown eyes, her always-smiling mouth with its full underlip. Her beauty was ripe now. She would begin bearing within this year surely, and with the years those firm teats of hers would darken and wrinkle like these.
“Ye listen now, Annie, as I’m just about to give the very advice my own mother, rest her soul, gave me ere I married your Papa. She said to me, ‘Ann girl, your man will have you with child all the time, if y’ let him. I’ve had nine o’ you,’ she told me, ‘and I love y’all as I love my life, but if I had it to do over, I’d rest a couple o’ years between. Now, only way to keep your man off you,’ she told me, ‘is nurse your babies longer, like the Indian women do.’
“That’s what she told me, Annie, and she spoke true. A man thinks that if ye have a babe at your teat, y’re still too much in motherin’ to lay with ’im yet. A man doesn’t know much about such things, and so if he respects you at all, and I know Owen does, why, he’ll not press ye. He mought go jump on a slave woman, but he’ll leave y’ be, remember that, Annie.”
“But Mama, y’ve bore ten of us,” Annie laughed. “Didn’t ye remember her advice, or what?”
Mrs. Clark’s blue eyes looked at a corner of the ceiling and she nodded and pursed her lips. “I remembered it. After I’d had Jonathan, and then Georgie right away after him, why, me-thought I’d nurse Georgie a long spell and get some respite from that man stuff. I mean, bearing children’s a fine thing, most important thing a body can do, I suppose, and what our Dear Lord fit us out to do, but after two, why, the marvel of it’d wore off, and I remembered your Grandmama’s advice, and I thought t’ try it. But … Well, it would ha’ worked, I reckon, ’cept I couldn’t go through with it. I’d see your Papa was a-wantin’, lusty man that he is, and I’d feel guilty like some sham dodger, not worthy o’ good John Clark.
“And, too—Damnation, girl, I’ll just out an’ say it: When John wanted me, I wanted John. And so I weaned little Georgie.”
Annie clapped her hands and laughed, red-faced. “Oh, Mama!”
“And so ’twas, by the very next year, ’54 that was, you came along, my darlin’, our first girl, and John honored me by naming you after me. And a blessing y’ve been every day o’ those eighteen years since. So, I guess—”
A gunshot echoed out of the woods.
“KSH!” Billy imitated it, pointing a finger. “Eddie shoot tokey!” Then he turned his gaze back toward the road, down beyond the meadow.
“See?” said the girl. “He always knows.”
“Aye. And indeed Edmund will have a turkey, by Heaven. He never misses.”
“You were but fourteen when y’ married Papa, weren’t you?” said Annie, turning back to marriage talk, her heart’s main concern.
Mrs. Clark put the baby girl on her shoulder and patted her back. “Fourteen. Aye, I’ve been raisin’ children far longer than I ever was one myself. Yes, m’ darlin’, I’m tired and half broken down by children now. But what better could I ha’ been doing, I always say, than bringin’ you ten wonders into this world? If pride’s a sin, then I’m a sinner. And, then, our Good Lord loads us only with such burdens as he created us fit to carry. I …”
She looked at Billy, who still gripped the windowsill, gripped it hard, his sturdy little body poised like a question mark, his copper-red hair ablaze with sunlight. What on earth has got ahold of him? she wondered.
“You’re not a bit broke down!” Annie was protesting. “You’re the most beauteous Mama in Caroline County, nay, in all Virginia, you are.” That was an accepted truth, but one that always made Mrs. Clark snort. She snorted.
“If beauty’s what keeps a man jumpin’ on ye, I’d as soon have been homely as ham,” she grumbled. But then her face diffused with a golden smile that meant she’d been jesting. “Y’re a kind girl, Annie, and kindness is the best of all your beauty. Thankee for your loving words.”
Billy now was flexing his knees and glancing frantically toward his mother, then back out the window. He gave a curious little hop of excitement and cried: “Jo jee common, Mama! He is!”