Mr. Stutley Northup is not a magistrate. Why, he’s not even a lawyer. But if people are free to come to him with their controversies, he is just as free to offer his opinion; and if they choose to act on it, well, that’s their own lookout. Little Hope, Pennsylvania, is not the sort of place to go about your business expecting not to have it talked about. If someone goes to see “Old Stuck-Up,” it must be because that business is a stubborn one. And urgent, too.
Mr. James E. (for Ezeziel, although he believes that only his parents and perhaps some nameless county clerk know that) Chambers rides the Freeport Road south from the lake, on past the jog it takes at the shingle mill at the creekside, way on past Enoch Parmenter’s place, past the Tarr farm, over fields and hills and wooded slopes, to just over the township line into Greenfield.
He follows the road that Judah Colt cut forty-some years ago towards the end of the previous century, said to be the first road since the French army abandoned the region. From the cabin he built with his own hands—abandoned in 1804 but still called Colt’s Station whether a church, store, tavern, or even, in the winter of 1821, a schoolhouse—it runs due north to the lake at Freeport. Winters, some folks still log the ridge, skid their haul to Little Hope, and, come the spring floods, lash together a raft and float it down French Creek past Amity and on into the Allegheny River, and past the confluences of the Clarion and Kiskaminentas, all the way to Pittsburgh, or farther, even (...Saint Louis! ...New Orleans!).
Old Northup’s place, now: isolated, sure, but his own. No, he tells anyone who asks, he’s not lonely, he’s got his books to lend him human warmth; a few cows, a hired man or two as they might be needed; he does well enough for himself nowadays. Niece of his stops by to look after him, good girl too, not like—well, there’s no call to name names.
Once he’s all properly seated and settled and served with refreshment, Chambers asks: What think you of the Canadian Republic and its likely fate? I hear tell that MacKenzie has lately fled to Navy Island, in the Niagara, and the British have seized and fired an American ship conveying supplies to them there.
Northup says: Don’t let’s beat around the bush, Chambers, tell me what you come here for.
Not to be hurried along, as befits the inherent dignity of the new Justice of the Peace for Harbor Creek Township, just this year appointed by Governor Ritner himself, and so young, too—J. E. Chambers takes his time with a few more sips of Northup’s locally famous boiled milk coffee. He suspects Northup ekes it out with roasted acorns. The old man watches him amiably enough, despite his tone.
Chambers, when he’s good and ready, says: You remember the Dusseau brothers.
Course I do. Pair of fools. French, too.
And their great sea serpent...?
Northup laughs bitterly.
You know of it then, Chambers presses.
Know of it? I saw it! Mind you don’t be smashing the crockery, Chambers.
James Chambers has set his cup down so abruptly that it threatens to shatter the saucer.
Northup says, Can’t afford to be replacing it all the time. Come from England, you know.
Chambers says, So sorry.
He mops up the spilled coffee with his spare handkerchief.
He goes on: But how could you have seen it? They said it must have died.
They lied. French, you know.
Well, then, what did they see there?
Probably it was just like they said.
Chambers regards the old man gravely. He slips his fingers into a pocket of his tobacco-brown coat and withdraws a paper packet. This he unfolds slowly and studies carefully. He looks up at Northup again, then back at his papers. He clears his throat.
He reads out: There is great excitement among the French inhabitants along the lake shore in North East Township over the reported discovery of a marine monster by two French fishermen named Dusseau. It was between twenty and thirty feet long and shaped like a sturgeon, but it had arms which it tossed wildly in the air.
He looks up: That was the Phoenix and Reflector. Last May. Local paper, you know. Gossip fills a column up as well as truth does.
Chambers places this scrap of paper on the table and studies the next one.
He says: Now this is one of the New York papers. Last June, I believe.
He reads: Special from Presque-Isle, Pennsylvania. The French settlers along the lake shore, in North East Township, Erie County, a few miles east of here, were surprised and amazed on May Twelfth over the appearance of an unknown fish of mammoth size. Two brothers named Dusseau, both fishermen, were returning from the fishing grounds, when they discovered a phosphorescent mass upon the beach. It was late in the evening, but they succeeded in making their boat fast to the shore, and, upon examination, discovered a lake monster writhing in agony.
Northup remarks: Amazing what gets printed these days.
Chambers keeps reading: The brothers say that it was like a large sturgeon in shape, but that it had long arms, which it threw wildly in the air. While they were watching it, the great fish apparently died, and the Dusseau boys, badly frightened, hurried away for aid. When they returned with ropes the fish had disappeared. In its dying efforts it had succeeded in tumbling into the lake and had been carried away by the waves. The marks left by its wild thrashings on the muddy shore indicate that the serpent was between twenty and thirty feet in length. Several scales as large as silver dollars which were cast off were picked up.
Chambers places this on the table atop the first. I have more, he says.
Northup sighs, shakes his head. He says: Not wild thrashings in the mud. Writing. And not scales, Chambers. Eggs.
His father, born Stukely Northup but renamed Stutley by a regimental clerk’s error and an officious paymaster’s refusal to admit it (You want your pay? Then you’re Stutley! Stutley!), had named his son after the error to confound the new government’s record-keepers. The war had done more than rename him; it had left him feeling hollowed out, uncertain of most things, and with a frail left arm. Discharged in January 1777 at Trenton, New Jersey, he’d made his way back through the bitter winter to a Rhode Island, a wife and young child, that he hardly recognized, not because they had changed but because they had not.
On May Fourteen, 1780, a fine spring Sunday in Little Rest, R.I., he was hailed in the street by a young woman strangely togged out, all in black, mannish and vaguely Quaker, and cloaked in a long black gown, like a preacher’s, tied at the throat with a flowing white cravat. She was riding a white horse and sporting a preposterous hat of white beaver with a flat crown and broad brim, tied down with a purple kerchief. Friend, she called to him, dost love thy neighbor?
Thinking of all the men he had so recently shot at, not in anger but out of righteous principle, he answered: No.
Dost love God? she asked.
That was a harder question. The strange woman urged her horse closer with a nudge of her knees and a clucking of her tongue. She asked again, bending down towards him, gazing into his face, her own framed by waves of mahogany curls held in check by her kerchief, her eyes alight: Dost love God?
No, he admitted.
Come, she said, follow me, and I shall teach thee how.
She straightened up, patted her horse’s flank. It ambled away, its hooves clop-clop-clopping on the hardened mud, and she did not look back.
Jemima Wilkinson had been born in Rhode Island, of Quaker parents, in 1758; had contracted typhus during the British blockade of Providence in 1776; had died there; and two days later she had risen again, from ecstasies and visions of heaven, with a new name: the Publick Universall Friend. Stutley (formerly Stukely) had never had much traffic with Quakers, but he saw in her something that he himself lacked and needed; she was possessed of a stout commonsense and a visionary charism, of compassion and a biting wit; and as for having died and risen again, well, he did not believe her, exactly, in so many words—he might say that he accepted her testimony. He abandoned his errands and duties (whatever they may have been) and turned his path towards hers.
Four Mile Creek originates in Greenfield Township and enters the lake after a course of about eight miles. The most striking feature of these lakeshore streams is the deep channels they cut in their passage from the high ground inland to the level of Lake Erie, and which are often the only route down from the lake’s treacherous shale bluffs to its narrow stony strand. These ravines, or gulfs as they’re called there, are most profound along Four and Six Mile Creeks, where they have worn a course from 100 to 150 feet deep, providing picturesque scenery for those who enjoy such diversions, and also, for many others, freedom from spying eyes.
Someone has cut crude steps into the steepest parts of the path down the gulf’s slope. Now two men—one tall and gaunt, head-to-foot in rusty black, clean-shaven, grizzled hair matted to his scalp with sweat but spiking out where he’s rubbed at it; the other rounded in well-fed curves, his brown checked suit impeccable (or it was, before they started down this infernal track), his thick brown hair sleek with Macassar, his brown beard fashionably full—stumble and veer like a slapstick duo (ho there! hold on! give us a hand! et cetera) until, reaching bottom, they huff and puff for a minute and catch their breath.
Then Northup says: Lend a hand now, will you?
As they haul the brush and tree limbs from off a rowboat pulled up onto the stony margin, Chambers asks: Is this your boat?
Northup says, I spend a deal of time on the water, like many a dairy farmer.
Northup says, There’s a canoe nearby, too. Proposing to conduct a boat census, are you? Want to stay on the right side of the law.
As do we all, Chambers says.
And it came to pass, Northup says, in those days, that there went out a decree from John Ezeziel, that all the boats should be counted.
Chambers says: As a duly appointed officer of the law, a magistrate in fact, it is my duty, my bounden duty, and a duty that I intend to uphold, sworn as I am, in the law, to pursue any and all....
But this peroration peters out, like a mountain stream flowing out across a desert waste. He keeps his silence while Northup busies himself with oars and buckets and other paraphernalia. Eventually, he asks: Whatever became of that hired man of yours, the Negro?
Amos, you mean?
Chambers shrugs. He says, I don’t recall the name, if I ever knew it.
Northup shakes his head. Called away by family duties, he says. Promised to send his cousin in the spring. Pretty soon, I expect, come to think of it. Off we go now, heft her up, watch your step.
They half carry, half drag the boat into the water. It rocks and scrapes as they clamber in, Chambers taking care to keep his glossy boots out of the mud. Now, the issue arises, which is to be the more honored in our time: age or dignity? Age wins out (also ownership), and Chambers bends his back to the oars while Northup, kneeling in the bow, fends the boat off submerged rocks with his heavy walking stick.
The watercourse is treacherous along this stretch, but the boat was hidden only a little way upstream from the lake, and soon the water is flowing deeper and faster. Chambers ships the oars and the boat runs freely along the gulf and then out from between the beetling scarps rounded like the shoulders of some giant asleep on the lakeshore. The boat slows in the lake’s stiller waters and he takes up the oars again. It’s hard work, and after a while of stretching and pulling, stretching and pulling, he pauses to steady his heaving breath. Northup is still kneeling in the bow, gazing off into the blank and hazy distance.
Chambers half turns and speaks over his shoulder to him: Rumor has it—
Northup snaps: Rumor’s a fickle bitch.
Chambers turns back, waits a bit, then tries again:
Rumor has it that strange happenings are afoot around the lake. Fishermen have seen monstrous great snakes, and their boats have been attacked, and their catch often bear extraordinary teeth marks. Bathers have been harried and bitten by unseen molesters in the water. Not to mention the numberless reports of floating lights, and voices and other noises in the night, and mysterious comings and goings of invisible ships, and unexplainable prodigies of the water. Stationary waterspouts, as just one example. And worse, much worse. The Dusseau affair is the least of it. You simply cannot imagine what crosses the desk of an ordinary Justice of the Peace every day! Why, only this morning a body washed ashore.
Northup turns and sits heavily on the bench athwart the gunwales.
He says: A body? First I heard of it. Whose body?
Chambers says: Your hired man. Amos.
Stutley (Junior, as it were)’s childhood in the New Jerusalem, between the shores of Keuka and Seneca Lakes in central New York, doted on as one of the few children in a community of separatist celibates, all of them half-drunk on godliness, was at least as happy as any other childhood and happier than many. The Universall Friend forbade violence of any kind, even so trivial a violence as striking a willful child. She believed, instead, in reason and patience. Stutley, grown a young man, left to study at Brown College, back in Rhode Island, where he could live with relatives; but when at last he had finished there, all diploma’d, he learned one more wisdom: his hometown, riven by land speculation and unable to long outlast its founder, had been liquidated in that universal solvent, suits-at-law.
Therefore he’d ventured westward, out into what was still only sparsely settled wilderness, on the promise that there was need for schoolmasters there. Not that anyone called it wilderness. It was opportunity!, that most American of words, and like most of America, newer than new, it was not quite what it seemed.
Not that it was a lie, exactly, either. There ought to have been a need for schools, Heaven knows they sorely needed them for the adults as for the children, but schools there were none. Not a one. Certainly in Rhode Island and Connecticut there were more would-be schoolmasters than there were schools to house ‘em. So then, young man, westward ho! and they’ll beat a path to your door.
Paths there were, in plenty, trails and tracks, but hardly any roads, no schools, and certainly no students at all. Thus all his opportunity left him, as his ready cash already had, on the marshy margin of French Creek at Greenfield Post Office, better known as Little Hope, the last stop for the flat-bottom boats (or batteaux as they are called locally) that ply the western branch of that stream. Another crate landed, crack!, at his feet, heaved off the batteau by a boatman who was going to be angrier yet when he learned that the gratuity due him was not to be. Stutley sighed and tugged the crate out of the mud. Well then, he supposed, there he was, and there he would stay.
I begged him! I begged him to stay, I did.
This outburst startles Chambers, who is head-down at the oars again. He leans back, so that the blades lift clear of the water, dripping, and with a clatter lets them fall to the bottom boards. He turns on his bench, hefting his legs over it, to face Northup on the bow bench, and plants his feet on the bottom. He pats his pockets for his tobacco pouch—but he’s left it at home, knowing that smoking would be unwelcome at Northup’s place. The American shore is a blue blur low on the horizon.
Reluctant to speak after the fury his attempt at a few sympathetic words provoked earlier, Chambers leaves Northrup to his fit of weeping and takes in the cloud- and lakescape. He was one of Northup’s early and few students—the little schoolroom didn’t last long—and owes to his relentless drilling what smattering of Greek and Latin he still retains; he can’t imagine Northup begging anyone for anything. Or weeping, for that matter. The little boat bobs and rocks now as the wind-raised chop slaps against its side, the tops of the wavelets flaked with dazzling sunlight.
Have to be an inquest, I reckon, Northup says, calmer.
Tuesdays I take my milk to the Burnham factory, in Arkwright.
It takes a little time to gather a jury together.
Northup rubs his face with both hands, lets them fall back onto his knees, open, palms up. He shakes his head again, as if in disbelief. He stares at his fingers, curled like the roots of a storm-felled tree.
Well, he says at last. Better get to what we come here for.
He bends from his seat, hefts his walking stick, and pushes it through the gap of a crude wood clamp fixed to the bow, letting it slip through his hands until most of the stick’s length is underwater. He twists the clamp tight.
He turns to Chambers and says, I warned—
Chambers says: Perhaps we could just get on with it.
Northup turns back and picks up a mallet. He strikes the submerged stick; Chambers can feel the thrum of its vibration through his seat. Another blow. Another. He is making a steady rhythm like a man walking, ten strokes in all. Northup waits for a moment, then repeats the pattern. And once more. He tosses the mallet down and turns to face Chambers.
Right then, he says. Might take a while.
Chambers puts his hands in his pockets. The wind off the water is cold. The ice finally cleared up only a week ago.
Unexpectedly, Northup smiles. Never told you about the Dark Day, did I?
Chambers shakes his head.
Northup tells him:
Five days after my father met the Universall Friend. A crowd, listening, in the middle of the deserted street, in the middle of the day. Everywhere the darkness. Candles flickering in the windows of shops and houses. A preacher, voice already hoarse. He holds a book open, aloft. Shouts: Matthew, chapter twenty-four, and the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven! He’s not reading aloud, it’s too dark. An eloquent sweep of his free hand calls attention to the black and heavy sky. Revelation, chapter six, and lo, the sun became black as a sackcloth of hair and the moon became as blood and the stars of heaven fell onto the earth, for the great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to withstand it! He holds up his free hand, for silence like, and his other hand shakes the book fiercely. Not I! calls someone in the crowd. Nor I! and Amen! amen! from all around. Then there’s a woman’s voice calling out: I shall, I shall stand, we all shall stand that day.
The crowd parts, but there’re also angry murmurs: because it’s Jemima Wilkinson. The preacher admonishes: The wrath of God is upon us all, fear God, for the day of his judgment is here! She says: I worship God the father, not God the petulant child who breaks his playthings in a fit of rage when his will is thwarted. He: Look, the heavens are darkened and the sun snuffed out. She: It is but smoke, can thou not smell it, as from some great fire to the north? She dips a handkerchief into a barrel of water there. Look, it is soot afloat the water, that has settled out of the air, it appears to me that this darkness is occasioned by the smoke and ashes arising from large fires, the state of the wind being such as to prevent the quick dispersion of these heavy vapors. She’s shouted down: Unbeliever! Heathen! Blasphemer! and worse.
Behind her, the preacher lifts his thick book over his head like to strike her. But she looks into his eyes, silently, until he lowers it. She takes it and hugs it to her breast. The crowd’s silent now. She says: The word of God, indeed, in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God, all things were made by the word of God, and this light shineth in the darkness. She points up at the blackened heavens: What do you think the name of this word is, do you know, can you say? She returns the book (which isn’t in fact a Bible but a volume of Coke’s Institutes) to the preacher. She says: I tell you now, the name of the word is love.
Chambers says: Look!
He’s pointing at the water where a Δ-shaped wake is aimed at their boat like an arrow in flight.
And Captain DREVAR wrote to the Editor of the Graphic (144):—
“My relatives wrote saying that they would have seen a hundred sea-serpents and never reported it, and a lady also wrote that she pitied any one that was related to any one who had seen the sea-serpent.”
I hope that within a few years, this fear of meeting with a sea-serpent will be no more heard of.
—Antoon Cornelius Oudemans
Shh! Hephyibee hissed. They’ll hear!
Dust motes as they drifted through the air crossed the slits of light that slanted through the vertical chinks in the siding of the empty smokehouse—it was parching summer, Fifth Month of his twelfth year—and, falling through, illuminated then winked out, shafts and sparks in the dimness. Hephyibee moved so that one bright stripe fell across her bare belly, where she’d hiked up her dress and pushed down her pantalets.
Down, slave! she commanded.
Stutley obediently bent over, his toes gripping the packed-earth floor.
She said, You have seen your mistress improper.
She whisked an old cobweb-chaser, its long bristles limp and broken, against his bare back. He flinched and whimpered, as she’d instructed at the beginning of the game.
Show me your shame, she demanded.
He stood up and dropped his trousers for her.
Ha ha ha, she said—not a real laugh, but as if reading aloud laughter as it would be spelled out in a book. She raised the broom again.
Samuel was standing next to the door, out of the slanted light, watching, blinking, silent. Samuel Turner, youngest boy in a freeman’s family that had joined the settlement from Philadelphia. His dark skin made him little more than an outline against the bright stripes. He’d consented to take off only his shirt. Stutley watched him watching them, Samuel’s mouth open a little, the lower lip moving as he breathed. A fugitive glisten. Stutley saw in his eyes something that must be only a version of himself.
Samuel pushed the door open—blinding glare—and ran away. The door thudded shut. A moment later, the door slammed open and shut again. Hephyibee.
As Stutley stood there, his trousers at his ankles, the smooth dirt cool against his soles, waiting for something, he didn’t know what but something huge and perilous and inexorable—like a theophany from heaven, Hail! Blessed One!— he felt nailed down, not by fear that what he was doing (what was he doing? he didn’t know, not for sure, but he did know it would direct the course of his life) was in any way sinful, for surely it was not, but a certainty that no one, no one, could see its beauty as he did: pure, fervid, glittering, a beauty so overpowering that he was trembling. It was like a long hallway, longer than any real hallway he’d ever seen, stretched out in front of him, lined its whole length with doors, and all he had to do, all he could do, was open one.
Northup holds his arm out over the gunwale like Moses preparing to part the waters.
Don’t let the mouth alarm you, he says. Takes some getting used to, I’ll readily admit.
The wake stops a few yards short of the boat, and the leading ripples plash quietly against the side. Then a gout of water bursts up right next to them and out of it thrusts a fleshy column, water runneling down its sides. Like the tail of an enormous snake. The top of it’s more rounded than a snake’s tail, but it’s scaly all over and glistens.
The thing thrashes up and down, like a horse resisting the bridle. Splashes of water fly all over.
It rears back and bulks tall, and a good two feet of it drop over the side of the boat, where it rests, quivering.
Chambers jumps up. The boat rocks.
It all goes so quickly!
Three slits along its sides flare and lapse, flare and lapse, like the gills of a hooked fish. The three slits widen. They flap open. The inside’s bright green. And lined with teeth, rows of teeth, spiraling rows of teeth. And out of the—. It must be a mouth. Out of the mouth a dozen—tongues?—tentacles?—whips?—a dozen little lashes of flesh in as many colors and—
—as if he’s done it many times before—
—Northup thrusts his hand into the writhing.
He looks up at Chambers, his hand nearly engulfed in a frenzy of caressing whiplets. And he smiles! He holds up the other hand, as if to say, wait, wait, you’ll see.
Two more tentacles emerge from the rings of teeth. Their tips flicker like snake tongues, forked, but fast, much faster, the motion a blur in the air. Dost... fare... well... friend.... sings a piercing little voice like the whine of a mosquito.
Chambers seizes the oar from the bottom of the boat, wrenches it out of its lock, and brings it down with all his strength on the snake looped across the gunwale. The blade skids against solid flesh and he beats it again and again then another oar smacks black against his skull and his eyesight narrows and darkens and he drops the oar. He staggers back. Sky and water swap places and the water blooms green and someone wrenches his arm and tugs him, he’s facedown in the bottom of the boat.
A deep thud from below the boat; the boards (Chambers could swear) strike his jaw like a blow and he sits up like a jack-in-the-box. Water wells up and sinks. Circles of waves with the boat at their center flee outward.
Somewhere deep inside his fury and panic, Chambers hears Northup shouting: Hell’s teeth in a bucket of blood, man! How could you! Why could you! What’s come over you?
Northup grasps Chambers’s lapels and hauls him upright against the bench. He sits down on the other bench and stares at him. Chambers blinks back tears. His belly’s heaving and he swallows hard. He’s panting.
Northup says: For sure your heart is a furtive, terrified, and small one.
And he says: Not to worry, he won’t be returning today.
And he says: I say “he,” but probably it’s nonsense to apply that word to him.
And he says: Always seemed impertinent to ask.
Chambers’s hands are nervously rummaging about, as if they’re someone else’s hands, touching rope, wood, wet, a bucket handle, moss, the oar, a nailhead. Moss?
He looks down. Strewn around him: hundred of wet rounds, like seedpods or ragged coins. He picks one up and immediately flings it down, for it’s warm as flesh and as yielding, its surface plush as velvet.
Ah, Northup says. The eggs, you know.
Chambers levers himself off the bottom and onto the bench.
It’s not done to a purpose, Northup says. He strews his spoor as he goes. Not usually so many, though.
Chambers says: And from these small notions such monsters hatch....
Northup says: Oh, they don’t hatch. Just swell up for a day or two, turn all leathery, crack open, and dry up. Seems this world lacks some vital necessity.
This world? Is there some other?
Northup spreads his open hands, then lets them fall back to his knees.
Chambers’s jaw flaps open: No! You can’t mean—these Hellish creatures—
No just God has any use for a Hell.
He says it with an air of quoting someone irrefutable.
Chambers says: Spare me your heresies. Not Hell, then, but certainly not Heaven. Where then?
Northup waves one hand skywards.
He says, Elsewhere, elsewise. I don’t pretend to understand. I like to think—
He smiles as if at a private joke.
Venus, he says.
Chambers scoffs: Venus! You might as well say Mars. Or Jupiter.
Yes! Northup says with a peculiar enthusiasm. Or the Pole Star!
Northup often spent time on the lake shore, because sometimes he needed to be there, and because he wished to establish that his presence was not unusual. Probably most folks assumed he was smuggling whiskey, and laughed at his pose as an abstemious hemi-demi-semi-quasi-Quaker. He often said: I am myself a burnt-over district.
He picked up a flattish stone and flung it spinning at the water. It smacked the surface and leapt up one two three four times and vanished, plunk, at five. Not bad. He looked around for another suitable rock.
At first he thought it was a log washed ashore—blackened, slick with wet and rot, a clutter of stones and sticks tangled around it. The water surged and retreated in the onshore wind. His boot heels crunched dimples into the shoal of pebbles. Those angles of rocks, that arrangement, the broken driftwood—it almost resembled, it seemed to be—oh it must be: it was a word. L O V E.
And then the log opened its eyes.
All six of them.
Not a log but a serpent, an enormous—
(Everything that is in Nature, the Universall Friend once told the two boys, Stutley and Samuel (the only other boy even close to Stutley’s age) she’d caught beating a little black grass snake with sticks, is of Nature and thus partakes of some measure of God’s benevolence. She fixed her eyes on each boy in turn and continued: In some cases, to be sure, alas, it is a distressingly small measure. But this creature—she looked into its eyes dangling before her own and with a flick of her arm tossed it into the tall grass—is not venomous and serves God’s will by eating the vermin that would otherwise eat the maize belonging to God’s servants. She turned. And now, my small gentlemen, with that lesson well learned we shall proceed with our schoolwork. And with the two of them in tow she strode across the field, long black clergy-cloak flapping behind her and the two boys making faces at each other.)
He stood frozen to the spot.
The serpent bucked back and shook itself, flung out multiple whipping arms, and flapped and flipped up and down in a frenzy of motion. Like an epileptic fit. Was it ill? It fell down and lay still.
Now the stones and driftwood read H O M E.
Northup’s knees just gave out on him, his legs went limp and he sat down right there on the rocks. Terror dwindled quickly, though, swamped with astonishment and, as that too ebbed, with, what else, it must be curiosity—
He found a stick and scratched into the mud ∃ Λ O ⅂.
And the serpent whistled. A high keening, like a winter wind through pine trees, and somehow communicating the utmost melancholy. It reared back again and rapidly rearranged its sticks and stones to read F R E E.
A scurf of scales rose and fell on the broken water, blank to the horizon.
Back at the farmhouse, Chambers paces up and down the parlor.
How long? he asks. How long?
How long what? Northup asks.
How long has God’s good earth been infested with these—these—monstrous vermin?
Northup sighs, shakes his head.
How long? Chambers asks.
A lifetime. Fifty years or more.
What hope, then, in ridding ourselves of them? What hope of surviving the onslaught? What hope for our children, our families? What hope for the future of us all?
Northup says: What in Heaven’s name are you going on about?
The beasts! The creatures! Already they have killed a man—
Killed who? Northup asks.
Your man, they killed your hired man, I saw the body myself.
Northup says: You forgot his name already.
Chambers says: It’s hardly important.
Northup stands up and stalks out of the room. Chambers hears him in the pantry, stomping around, glasses and crockery rattling and knocking. After a while it get quiet and he comes back with a bottle and two glasses.
He hoists the bottle and says: Don’t usually indulge, but this is not a usual circumstance.
He sets the bottle down hard on the parlor table. The top-heavy Argand lamp there cants and steadies, and its train-oil reservoir tilts a shadow across the wall.
Armagnac hors d’âge, he announces. You might say the good stuff. Dutch merchant whose son I went to school with gave it to me—oh, years ago. Dead now, I imagine.
He pushes the cork out with his thumb and pours. He hands one glass to Chambers, who tosses it back and falls into a fit of coughing. Northup swirls his own glass thoughtfully, gazing into the amber whorl, then lifts the glass to his lips and sips noisily. He smiles, and sets the glass down.
Survival seem likely? he asks Chambers.
Winded, hand pressed to his chest, Chambers nods.
More? Northup asks.
Chambers shakes his head.
Northup takes another sip.
Pleasure is the principle pursued here, he says, not mere intemperance.
He continues: Now, as for our friend in the lake. Been there long as I’ve been alive. Longer, maybe. Plenty of time to wreak all the havoc a soul could fear, if havoc was wished for. If my understanding’s good, we’ve as long again to go before any hope of rescue. Yes, rescue. Don’t be a fool, Chambers. Sit down.
Chambers has leapt to his feet and is heading for the door.
Northup says: I’m no more an enemy than I’ve ever been. Which is to say, I hope you see, hardly at all. Sit down.
Chambers stammers: They—they’ve—you have—
Northup says: There is no “they,” Chambers. There’s only the one. Sit down.
Chambers is fumbling at the door, which Northup has had the foresight to latch.
Northup goes over to him, puts his arm over his shoulder, and brings him back to the chair. James, James, he says. Sit down, old friend, he says. Have another brandy.
He pours. Chambers sips this time.
He sets the glass down and comes out with: Tentacles! You put your hand in—
But he can’t complete the thought, his mind just veers away from the recollection.
Northup says with an air of great patience: He recognizes me by taste. Can’t see too well out of the water. Of course he’s got good eyes, and up close he can see very well indeed, better than us probably, but at any distance.... Which is also how you managed to surprise him with that oar.
Chambers says, How long have you—?
Northup says, Many years. I spend a deal of time on the water, you know.
Yes, Chambers says. About that....
Northup lifts his eyebrows at him.
Chambers says, It might seem a little awkward, to deal with your former student as an officer of the law—
Not at all, Northup murmurs.
But duty is duty, and I know what mine is.
Chambers takes another drink. Northup refills his glass.
Chambers says, Now, I know you did not kill him. Yes, I know that because I know you. And you say the... the...
Visitor, Northup suggests.
The—visitor—has not have killed him, whatever I might believe about it. I accept your word on that point. And yet I have a body that’s washed ashore, and even a dead Negro requires an explanation.
He half-drains his glass.
Not a mark on him, he adds. Good stuff, this.
Yes, Northup says.
Well, Northup says.
Truly, you didn’t know? Northup says. And all this time, James, I thought you were looking the other way.
Looking away? From what? When?
Now it’s Northup’s turn to drain his glass. It was a placard, he says. That I saw in Erie City. I mentioned it to Amos, casual like, that one George Cramer was offering two hundred dollars reward for the whereabouts of a certain Nebuchadnezzar, not a name I knew. Can you believe it, I said. I thought it preposterous. But he flew into a panic, wouldn’t listen to me, threw his belongings into a bundle and out the door. I—
He refills his glass.
You remember how cold it was this past winter. He determined to walk across the ice. It was foolhardy. He wouldn’t heed me, and the ice proved, it seems, less sound than he believed. He must have drowned, and without any help or hindrance from our visitor. Who I can’t doubt was not even aware of his presence above him.
A long pause. The firelight flickers on the ceiling, orange and gold laced with shadow.
Chambers says, You go to Arkwright on Tuesdays?
Chambers says, I believe it likely that the jury will return a verdict of death by misadventure. He lowers his gaze, and adds: Even without your testimony.
Northup says, Thank you.
But he adds: There is a class of people who, accustomed to the manipulation of power on behalf of themselves and their friends, grow to believe that that power is theirs as an aspect of the natural order of things. Soon they do not care what it takes to perpetuate their power; whatever it may be, they will do it. You are not like that, Chambers. But take care that you do not become so.
There follows a passage of time punctuated with the purl of poured liquor, the clink of glasses.
Eventually, Chambers says: Rescued?
Northup says: Yes. He comes from a long-lived race but all he can do here is wait.
He calls himself Jonah now, a story so terrible that he’s never told it to anyone because no one could believe it. Amos Walker was never his name; that’s just what he called himself to strangers, a name for using on the long road northward. He chose for himself the name Jonah, from the Bible, and the surname of a man who had been kind to him. The name he was given at birth—not by his mother—nor had he ever known his father—was, he’s come to understand, a cruel one, and contemptuous. And a mouthful, too; even his own mother called him Nebs, his childhood friends Nezzer. Just the one name, like an animal.
He shivers and pushes at the door again. It’s firmly shut. Winter had been cold in Virginia, too, of course, but it’s harsher here, more ice, more snow, especially south of the lake. His mind veers away from that thought with a practiced swerve, a neat turn, and he crosses to the hearth and plucks a twist of tallow-dipped straw from a little basket there, holds it to the guttering fire, and breathes on it gently to puff its smolder into flare. It’s colder here than he’s used to—but then it was cold in Pennsylvania, and colder still crossing the ice.
For a second his hand shakes again and he nearly drops the twist. This won’t do, not at all. He pinches off the crumb of soot crusted to the tip of the wick and presses the little flame against it. The candle stub smokes and catches, brightness rising from its wick like a smile. A thread of smoke bends and wafts. He closes the lantern’s glass door. There. That’s good. Warmth and light. He hangs the lantern up on its hook, its pierced-tin back against the wall, and prods the fire higher.
He sits down at the little deal table under the lantern, pushed up against the wall, and picks up the penknife. He has a cracked cup stuck full of the right kind of feathers, and he takes one, strips the barbs off with the knife, and plunges the tip into the hot ash under the logs in the hearth.
No, Canada’s no paradise. His neighbors aren’t as friendly with a colored man as they might be with a white one, for sure, but Americans are worse, apart from a few, and he’s had much to endure. Only for that—bad usage—and he’d still be in America, though he does not regret coming here. No, he was forced away. He pulls the quill out and sets to cleaning the end, softened now, with the dull back edge of his knife. Then he polishes it with a bit of brick he keeps for that purpose.
He’s well contented here, yes, a man now as God intended that he should be—that is, born equal and free, a wholesome law unlike the southern laws that put men, made in the image of God, on a level with brutes. O what will become of my people—for a moment all the sickness of his own thoughts bears down on him—where will they stand on that day? Let the oppressed go free, go free.
He is staring blankly at the fire, his task forgotten.
And I will come near to you in judgment, a swift witness against the false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow (his mother was a widow, she never spoke of it but he knew why), and the fatherless (a blankness).
He looks down at his hands, at the quill, the knife: a choice to be made.
But he knows that he will not meet those men again in this life; and, indeed, despite his anger, he hopes that they might still repent of their evil, and let their property go free. He does still hope for their salvation, but he does not believe they will.
He trims the lower third of the quill, twists it round in his fingers, cuts off the tip at a slope, then turns it again and slits it. He nicks the sides and trims them off, tests the tip against his thumb, and trims a little more. Placing the tip on his thumbnail, the knife somewhat aslant, he cuts the end of the nib not quite off, nimbly flips it around, and pulls the blade clean through. He inspects the new pen and, satisfied, lays it down.
He opens the bottle of ink he bought in town; an extravagance, perhaps, but in the past summer, besides having a good kitchen garden, he raised (for cash sale) 316 bushels potatoes, 120 bushels corn, forty-one bushels buckwheat, a small crop of oats (for the hogs), seventeen hogs, and seventy chickens (whose eggs he sells at the weekly market, while the occasional ailing hen goes into the pot). His rent for his cabin this year is fifty dollars, and next year he hopes to build and so avoid that expense. If he’d known how well he’d get along, he’d have left America ten years sooner.
He dips his pen.
Deer, he writes. Is that right? It’s a word, sure, but something about it seems not exactly as it should be. Writing comes hard to him, having been learned late, and his lines frequently blot and his pen breaks and the paper tears and he brushes his sleeve against wet ink; every literate mishap there can be, there is. But he tries: that’s important; he tries, and perhaps he improves day by day.
He found a route north, and he found a teacher to help him to read, and reading’s easier for him now than ever before, and surely he’ll find his path here too. We are all wayward pilgrims, having lost our names and our friends, and many of us our lives, with little chance, stumbling towards Zion-land; and though we may not know the clear path, still we shall reach our home. Someday. Perhaps someday. Pray that it be soon.
He picks up his pen again and writes:
Deer Friend Stutlee
(July 1881. Report of the Signal Service officer at the port of Erie City:
(At 5:30 in the morning the air was calm. At 6 o’clock, a slight breeze. To the northward a dark cloud appeared like a curtain, and at the same time a rumbling sound and a strong wind. At 6:20, a single, large green wave, about nine feet above the normal level of the lake, with no crest, approached from the northwest with great rapidity. The cloud, wave, and wind seemed to travel together. Soon after the passage of the wave, the wind subsided and the cloud dispersed.)