An excerpt from Devil’s Dream

June, 1854

It was sometime after midnight when Forrest came out of the gambling house, but maybe, he hoped, not very long after. There was not light enough to see his watch, but at least he did still have his watch. He walked over to the riverfront for the stirring of air on the water. Someone hissed at him from the shadow of a low shed.

Hi you! Step over here a minute.

Forrest stopped, searching toward the voice. He stepped into the shadow of a building behind him, to hide his silhouette. One of the men across the way stepped clear of the shed and beckoned. Forrest paid gold coins through the fingers of his right hand in his pocket while with his left he touched the grip of a pistol in his waistband and then settled his grasp on the haft of his long knife—just as deadly and a whole lot quieter. He could see two of them now, just their heads and shoulders visible against the glow of slow-moving river behind them. A pale patch at the throat of one, a cravat maybe. These riverboat agents dressed like dandies oftentimes. They came and went like driftwood on the stream. There might have been a third man in the shadow of the shed. Come on, he thought, raising a heel to the sill behind him, setting himself for the first shock, Come ahead if ye mean to come. He felt keen, alert, the master of himself. He’d quit for once when he was ahead, and it would need more than a swarm of these river rats to rob him of his winnings. But the rats decided to stay where they were, whispering and scrabbling in the dark.

Forrest turned the corner and walked back into town. At the next corner he stopped and looked back once, then released his hold on his knife and went on, turning gold pieces over in his pocket. When he came in view of his house and saw the lamp still burning in the sickroom, his bubble of elation burst. He would have liked to go in the back gate and sit by himself a while maybe, on the edge of the cistern among the nigger pens. Aunt Sarah might come out and bring him water then. But the white folks had already seen him, looking down from his front porch.

The eerie twittering of a screech owl in a tree branch over the porch roof unnerved him rather, though it was only an owl. Resolutely he climbed the steps. His brother John’s eyes were shiny with laudanum. Doctor Cowan’s looked exhausted but clear.

“No better,” Forrest said.

Cowan only shook his head at first. “She’s awful weak,” he said at last. “I’m sorry.”

Forrest went into the house, set his hat on the rack and straightened his jacket. He touched his weapons and his gold, but felt no reassurance from them. He went up the stairs to the second floor, empty hands swinging.

“Don’t touch her.” Mary Ann’s voice was cold as winter stone. “I won’t have your black hands on her.”

He could see Catharine, standing in the doorway, lamplight soft on the glossy curve of her cheek, her kerchief neat above her brows, eyes empty, mouth expressionless—she was always so when so rebuked.

“Get out,” Mary Ann said.

Catharine turned, walked past him, down the stairs. He watched her away, searching for any trace of insolence, a swing of her hip beneath the calico—there was nothing of the kind. Presently he heard the back door close and pictured her walking, straight and slim, past the cistern to the stall where her own healthy child slept calmly.

With an effort he crossed the threshold, into the stink of blood and runny shit. They had just cleaned up little Fan again and were tucking her up in the big bed. His mother came past him, carrying a tin basin out. The stench abated when she had gone.

Mary Ann’s eyes passed over him. She did not speak. But I won, Forrest thought to say, and wanted to justify himself still further. I won close on four hunnert dollars. And don’t a man have a right to some relief? I don’t drink whiskey nor use tobacco. I don’t take laudanum. I don’t pray.

Mary Ann lowered her head, and sat stroking the girl’s hair and shoulder as she shifted and murmured in fretful sleep. No word was spoken until Mariam came back into the room with the basin washed and dried and empty.

“Mother Forrest,” Mary Ann said then, pushing her weight up from the bedside chair. “I have just got to lie down for a spell.”

“Yes, child,” Mariam Forrest said. “I know ye do.”

“You’ll call me if—?”

“Yes. I will.”

Mary Ann went out without saying a word to her husband or looking at him. Slowly Forrest crossed the floor and lowered himself into the chair at the bedside. Mariam Forrest sat in a ladder-back chair against the wall.

“That gal has got a right to be weary,” she said, with no particular inflection in her voice. Forrest looked across the bed toward her. She took up a basket from the floor and went on shelling butterbeans, her eyes bent steady on her work. Forrest felt a little easier in his mind. Cain’t afford to think about it, he told himself. He laid a hand on Fan’s forearm. The child had quieted and breathed easily in sleep.

Butterbeans pattered from basket to bowl. The quick nervous surge of his gambling adventure began to drain away from Forrest. His eyes were heavy. Poor Fan was breathing with her mouth open, a light rasp away back in her throat. The ticking of the beans slowed down and stopped and Forrest looked across at his mother, who was sleeping in well-disciplined silence, bolt upright in the straight chair except that her head had rolled to the right and rested against the wall. A vine of scar wrapped over her left shoulder. Her shoulders were almost as high and wide as his.

He’d dressed her wounds, that time the panther tore her back. It shamed him but he’d let no one else undertake it. In fact she’d told him what to do herself, between clenching her teeth on a rag to control herself at the pain of the liniment. Since then he’d never seen her bare. He had seen slaves aplenty though, with the weal-grids of whip scar raised on their backs—lashed there by himself sometimes. When he must and when there was no other way before him. The screech owl from its post just beyond the open window poured quicksilver gibberish into his ear. He wanted to reach through and wring its feathered neck, but it was thought to be bad luck to kill an owl. He saw himself standing over Catharine, her calico ripped down to her waist, her back still long and smooth and whole though a braided rawhide dripped from his hand and Mary Ann’s resentment would make him leave it raw and bloody from a hundred cuts. With a shivering start he came awake. He would go and murder that owl, he thought. But it was due to happen, what he’d dreamed. He didn’t want to think on that, but she would have to study it. He could not keep on keeping Catharine so close. In a few years’ time, with a little luck and a lot more determination, he’d claw himself out of the slave trade altogether, and be a planter, like the gentry. Or be a planter anyway.

Downstairs in the parlor the mantel clock tolled three times. Mariam’s head stirred, crushing her cheek against the plaster wall, but still she slept, a bean pod dangling from her fingers. Fan had shifted in the bed and was reaching for him with both her arms, her dark eyes wide. Her mouth open too, though she made no sound. He picked her up and held her against his collarbone. Her face burned against his throat. She didn’t have the heft she’d had three days ago or four. She didn’t weigh any more than a rabbit, he thought.

As he carried her down the stairs the owl’s weird sibilant voice faded. Doctor Cowan and his brother were still sleeping in their chairs. He stood in the night air holding and stroking her back until it seemed she was cooling a little. Then he went inside and settled in a rocking chair before the cold fireplace. When Fan was well she would ride astride of his long shin bone, holding his hands and shrieking with joy with the wild gallop he would give her. Tonight he could only rock her so gently. The faint warmth of her breath on his neck as he slept.

When he came to, daylight had leaked into the room, and his mother stood behind the rocker. Fan’s little arm felt hard as a wire across his shoulder.

“Let me have her,” Mariam said. “You need to let me have her now.”

“I don’t want to let her go,” he said. “I won’t.”

Mariam shook her head and set her teeth in her lower lip and then released it. “You have to let her go,” she said. “Because, we have got to wash her now, and lay her out on the cooling board.”

“The cooling board?” Forrest twisted in his chair, feeling how Fan’s body moved against him rigid as a plank.

“We air goen to have to bury her, Bedford. Ye cain’t hold on to her thisaway.”

“Where’s Mary Ann?” Forrest said.

“She’ll wake to sorrow,” his mother told him. “Best let her sleep.”

“Fan.” Forrest rocked a little. “Fan.”

“Bedford.” Mariam put her hand on the back of his neck and squeezed. He felt the strength in her hand from all the cows she had milked in her life and was milking still. “Don’t you break down.”

He couldn’t recall how he’d come to surrender the body, but presently he was standing on the porch, empty-handed with his chest and belly cold all the way to the spine. John and J.B. Cowan held their faces sunk in their hands, afraid to look at him, Forrest supposed. The sun was rising in the same place it would have if his dear daughter Fan had not died in the night. He walked down the porch steps and looked up. The screech owl slept now with its eyes squinched shut—a useless cupful of feathers. He no longer wanted to harm it, really. He only wished that enemies would fall upon him now, like the river rats from the night before, surging with the intent to kill, so that he could slash their throats and spill their entrails onto the ground, or tear the limbs from them bare-handed. Yet he knew even this would not relieve his feelings much or for long.

A day later he stood in the burying ground with a shovel hat jammed on his head, choking in a high tight collar, listening to the damned preacher mumbling ashestoashesdusttodust, his own thoughts whirling around the same pin goddammit if there was any goddamn god why would he make a little girl that never did nobody no harm to die of the bloody flux? Answer me that goddam your eyes. But his mother’s eyes were firm upon him and he would not say these things aloud. Son Will was there on his right hand, and Mary Ann, with just a thread of golden hair leaking out of the net of her black veil to catch the summer sun, had tucked all her grief up under his left arm, against the ribcage where his heart beat on.   end