These days, he would lie on his bedsheets pleading and apologising, to her and to himself, whilst the secret of how to walk again would drift distantly above him like a kestrel. They had rigged up the room lately with an apparatus that would help him to complete a minor circuit, from the bed to the window and then from the window to the table and then back to the bed again. She had been very shocked when the metal hooks had been hammered into the syllabub creaminess of their ceiling, with one of them skirting perilously near to its plaster medallion. Now a jungle of handy ropes dangled, with thick knots for him to cling onto.
But he could still not stand upright yet. When he sat up and clear of the bedsheets, drawing to the edge of the bed and ready to entrust himself to the open air, this room would seem to rise up around him and roar majestically in his face. He would flush hot and cold, a huge alertness would be prowling all around him in flurries and he felt hopeless, as if a pocket might open up anywhere in the air through which his body would plummet, a dead weight.
Meanwhile, downstairs they were building him a Bath chair. The last that she had heard of this, the slaves were debating the chair in some kind of parliament that they all held in the house’s nethermost rooms. Would it be best to carry him out down the staircase in this chair or to instead lower him and it from the bedroom window?
She knew that he wouldn’t like the chair. He would have to travel around in procession, with one slave to push the chair and another to wave a fan and another to run ahead to open the doors, with frequent pauses in which they would all reconvene to bicker over the exact hierarchy. Previously, he had stridden about the house and nobody had stood on ceremony; by contrast, once planted in the Bath chair, he would far exceed the pompous theatrics of those Southerners who he had traditionally made merry over.
He was content only at night, when he was relieved of any obligation to get up and perform for them. Tonight, Josephine was storytelling and she, the mistress, sat listening over by the open window. She was frozen before a tiny, fluttering feather of coolness that had pushed through a crack in the vast heat of the night. This coolness felt akin to the warmth of a candle flame but inside-out, giving her the sense that she was a figure in an etching plate where black was white and white was black.
This evening, she could not wholly follow the story that Josephine was telling. A lady named Mrs Howling had found herself in charge of a big farm. Whether this farm was located in their own republic or back in a home country had been a detail that she, the mistress, had neglected to grab as it was passing. Normally, Josephine’s stories were set in the Thirteen States and they would feature witches that played tricks and ghosts that would turn houses clean upside down. The incidents in the life of Mrs Howling, however, seemed to have occurred very far away, at a place where no road that they knew of could ever lead them to.
Mrs Howling’s husband had run away, days before their farm was due to bring in the harvest. On this farm, there were only two hands left now to complete this work. No worker from all around would agree to be hired by a woman or to join a team that was not being led by a proper farmer. A farm, in other words, that was clattering along like a headless horseman.
The meaning of this story came down so suddenly on her, the mistress, that the fright felt like a deluge of cold water against her skin. Why was Josephine telling this story? It was clear that it related to her, the mistress, but in what precise respect? She had herself brought in the farm’s own harvest, all of it and in good time.
Next, Josephine’s story had moved seamlessly on, folding over and tucking away her mistress’ guilt. Mrs Howling was being haunted by a demon in her sleep or, rather, in her dreams. She had taken this problem to a warlock to be solved. The warlock had given her a draught that would at a stroke strike from her the power to fall asleep. She had duly passed days without any sleep. Yet with this, the material of her mind had grown so thin and flimsy that gradually, as her frantic stratagems to gather in the harvest had unravelled, the demon had begun to break through.
As the mistress was listening to this story, a scene visited her in a jumble of flashes. It was as though the detail of this room that she was sitting in, the heat of the night and its little, tickling feather of a breeze, were all eggshell and the vision was tapping through its fabric like a beak. She did not receive this vision chronologically and it was more that she knew her way around it all in one go.
There was a strangely decorated and furnished room where all of the colours looked luridly bright, as though sunlight had reached into an underwater garden. A small lady with fluffy grey hair was sitting in a chair with her hands in her lap. An old man, who was clearly a doctor, sat facing her behind a desk. The lady was speaking and her voice was rising and falling in a soft, melancholy sing-song.
“I don’t think that anybody is breaking into the house, but throughout this experience – the hallucination, I suppose it is – I’m convinced that the visitor is real.”
The doctor nodded. Then, in an alarmingly noiseless movement, as though a heron had adjusted its footing, he had darted forward in his seat. “Mrs Howling, the best thing to do would be to address the deep emotional problems which are causing your night terrors.”
The lady seemed to agree.
“But unfortunately, I can only treat your illness superficially, as it were, by merely getting rid of the symptoms.”
The doctor sighed. “I have to close the surgery for a month. It’s a contractual obligation. I’m owed an arrears of holidays, and…” he shrugged in conclusion. “I’m going to prescribe some pills. They’re fairly cutting edge – in fact, they’re not yet available on the NHS. We obtain them from a specialist supplier in Ireland. They artificially replenish certain neurotransmitters, and so on, in effect removing any need for sleep.”
“So I won’t need to… er… sleep?”
“It won’t be necessary, or indeed possible. Take three with every meal. Do not drive or operate any machinery whilst under this medication. You may experience some brief, light hallucinations, but they won’t distress you. Remember: nothing that you see is real.”
The doctor was rising in his seat, smiling whilst the lady shrank back, as if the pair of them were figures whose movements were somehow interconnected on a single clockwork mechanism. “But what will I do with all the spare time?” the lady protested.
“That’s up to you. It depends whether you want more work time or more leisure time.”
“Learn to play the piano. Knit. If you have any problems, then phone me at my home. I’ll just be sitting around the house. The nurse will provide you with my number. My wife has bought me one of those televisions, and if I can’t get any sense out of it, you’ll probably find me dismantling the thing. The technology is very intriguing. I doubt that the images are produced electronically, as the packaging claims. They’re undoubtedly some variety of chemically-induced delirium.”
Next, she, the mistress, had moved on to a scene that was outdoors, on a huge landscape and under an empurpled sky. There was a diabolical frame, one that looked as makeshift as a gallows, and it was lumbering over the earth and gobbling crops or snuffling them up. Figures on velocipedes shot under its eaves. Next, the machine had shuddered and it was spraying out fire and black smoke was billowing upwards and upwards and upwards whilst the little men on the velocipedes criss-crossed in panic.
She looked about very quickly and saw Josephine sitting beside the bed. She saw that the slave’s face was the same, with her eyes staring deep into the interior of her story through the unbearably magnified film of her spectacles. The room was the same. The feather of cool, fluttering air from the window next to her was the same. She looked about again, relieved.
“And so the demon finally took a hold of old Mrs Howling and this lady was dragged down to the very bottom of hell, where she was obliged to remain forevermore.”
She, the mistress, would not trouble herself to wonder about the vision that she had just experienced. She was simply relieved that it was over and that she was allowed to proceed about her business again. If you analysed these things, you would end up going mad, like one of those spinsters who maintained that in their sleeping quarters, in the small hours, they had taken little, chance pen sketches of the spirits of Richard the Lionheart or of Joan of Arc or of whoever else had paid them a visit from beyond the stars. It was doubtful if anybody was really sane but the sanest were surely those who were quickest to drop the hot potato of the world’s insanity.
“Mistress,” Josephine was inquiring. “What was that story that you was telling us about Mr Brantell? I have a feeling that the master would take great enjoyment from hearing that story. And, as you always say, I will myself add hundreds of extra legs to a story, so that it struts a lot less like an ant and more like a millipede.”
She, the mistress, reflected. Well, why not, it was a short story? “Can you hear me from over there?” she called to the bed.
“Yes,” he called back. His voice sounded very pale and distant.
“The other day Mr Brantell happened to be shot.” She, the mistress, paused to allow herself an uncharitable snigger. Josephine was already chastising her but then she had spoken over Josephine, to offer them some belated reassurance. “He was not seriously hurt. I don’t believe that all of their guns put together could bring down a partridge. But Mr Brantell was with his people, these people who live out at…” and she named a town that lay three or so miles from them. “These people who had all sailed from whatever part of England he comes from, or whatever church, together and in a rocking boat.”
“One of their party had happened to get married. He was a cobbler, I think, although he had rented a pair of rooms up in a nearby farmhouse, a little beyond the town. He would take two meals a day with the farmer’s family. What I know better was that he was an old man in his sixties, a whitebeard. By contrast, his bride was a silly chit of a thing, one of those girls who think that they will leap-frog to the top of the town if they can get some of their husband’s years to rub off on them.” The mistress promptly corrected herself, shaking her head. “Although in truth, I have never met the bride nor even seen her. This is just what I’ve heard.”
“There is a custom that endures amongst Brantell’s people that is known as ‘propping’. In circumstances such as those that I have described – an old man and a young bride – the people will creep up to the house where the couple are spending their first night together. They bring with them pieces of timber and they will lay these up against the outside walls…”
Brantell poking about in the rubbish heap behind his cabin. No longer drunk but with his mind a small, mean, calculating box. He picks up a plank dubiously, one left over from the building of a fence, but it feels too light and insubstantial in his hands. He moves on to a bundle of those beams that will mark the beginnings and ends of a fence. It has a gruff surface and in its loucher regions it is petticoated in cobwebs. He hoists this up against his shoulder, with both hands cupped under its base. No, this is too heavy. He puts it down and looks about restlessly before returning to it and this time finding it better to his liking. It seems to be the only lumber from all around that is suitable for propping.
Hoisting it up again, he sets off on a long, painful waddle towards the awaiting farmhouse. We are someway through the eerie symphony of the dusk. Darkness has not yet fallen over the plantation, or rather it is hanging back for now, with its eyes bright.
Brantell’s boots are squeaking on the slippery grass and then he is climbing up and on through woodland. The trees stand very far apart, so that their lean trunks might be pillars that are holding up some invisible ceiling. These trunks are silver and to Brantell they look disconcertingly smooth. On he waddles. It occurs to him how curious it is that back on the plantation he is being always assailed by the cawing and squawking of birds, whereas this forest remains totally silent. Vaguely, he decides that the moss that is lying in patches across the forest floor must be somehow absorbing the sound.
He can see another figure – one who is equally engrossed in carrying a length of wood – creeping through the trees ahead of him. Then, he becomes aware of a third figure to his right. In both cases, the men’s hats are pulled down to obscure their faces and their clothing is so baggy as to blur who they honestly are.
He stops, putting down his beam and leaning it gingerly against his stomach so that his fingers will be able to worm under it again. He then looks up to watch what will unfold ahead. The forest ends with the long pale wall of the farmhouse. The first figure has already reached this. He leans his own beam up against the wall and then stands back to admire his handiwork.
There are already other pieces of timber arranged against the wall, giving a fanciful impression that the farmhouse would fall down immediately if they were removed. These pieces will have come from all around the town, from barnyards and under eaves and in spots in the forest where debris has been left in piles.
Now the second figure is approaching. He lays his own beam against the house, bowing down as if he is performing an act of homage. He exchanges a word with the first man and they both wag their heads, apparently in amusement, before withdrawing.
When Brantell reaches the farmhouse, he commits identically to the same action. The beam leaves his hands and it is now firmly in place. It is as big as a little man and it too has become a spectator to the unseen event inside, as if it is tapping in through the wall to drink from it. If the grizzled old man had looked up from his rough lovemaking, and the girl’s head had poked out after him, then they might have perhaps grown mortified at this circle of wooden spectators who were all surrounding them and bubbling with their forest laughter.
Brantell hears the bang and, as an after-impression, he registers the black man who has come floundering around the side of the farmhouse with a rifle. Briefly, he thinks that a wasp has stung him on the left side of his face and then he has honed in on multiple points of pain. He grasps immediately that none of them have penetrated his eye socket.
He turns on the black man in fury. “You shot me!”
The man nods innocently. “Yessir. These are my instructions, sir.”
“You shot me!” Brantell repeats in incomprehension. He knows that he is required to react in some emphatic way but for now he is at a loss as to what to do. “You shot me!” he bellows, as if forcing anger into his voice might inspire him belatedly to action.
The man nods again. “Yessir, master told me to come out and shoot anyone who is attacking his wall.”
“You want flogged, boy? You want me come back here with the men and we will ride you… we will…”
“Your face is bleeding, sir,” the man informs him. Brantell looks down aghast and sees the red trailing in bright streaks across the floor, visible even now in the darkness that has reached them.
He stares back at the path behind him but nobody else is creeping up on the wall, like one of the Magi, with their solemn gift of timber. Why him? Why have they done this to him?
He can always push his way out of this maze that he has found himself in by threatening blindly. “I and the men, we’ll come back here to deal with you,” he gibbers spitefully. He is being led around the farmhouse and more black men are emerging now. One has hooked on to each of his elbows and they are holding him up. He can feel the wetness of the blood penetrating his shirt to roll over his bare skin.
“The master doesn’t want to see him,” a voice hisses. “Don’t take him in there.”
He is being led alternatively indoors, down under a low ceiling. “We will deal with you,” he continues to snarl, his voice wobbling but still managing to sound supremely satisfied. “You’ll see if we don’t. We’ll deal with you.”
He is being sat down in a hard chair. The pain is rioting in the side of his face now. It feels as though his face is being split open with axe strokes, in ever harder and more remorseless cracks.
“I’ll deal with you, we’ll deal with you…”
“Sit still, sir.”
“Sir, maybe you’d like to drink this…?”
“Just see if we don’t, goddam you. We’re coming tomorrow, we’re coming for you.”