A field stretching out in all directions like a huge empty mind. The boy had been following the plough all afternoon and the plough had been following the two lumpen, turnip-coloured oxen as they had strode baggily over the breaking waves of soil. By now, it seemed to the boy that his eyes had been resting on the back ends of these animals since the world had been young and Adam had first walked barefoot and carefree. The oxen’s tails swung restlessly over crusts of faded, dried shit. It was as though the only vivid thought that the boy had left to him, as his own, was these stains and the two tails swinging eternally, achingly, before him.
Yet he became conscious that the day was cooling and that a dullness was falling over the land that would not rise again. He was still mildly relaxed, knowing that there would be enough light to finish the field by.
He was also beginning to succumb to that gauntness or starkness that is always visited upon the world at this time of the day. As if death was faintly jigging his elbow and knocking away all of his casual illusions about his own life, so that he could perceive how small and mean it truly was.
As he reached the boundary of the field, he looked down over the trees and saw the house finely illuminated, glowing in magical colours like a toy. It was so dainty and miniature from this distance that the boy could have been viewing it through the window of a nursery. He realised that he had not noticed the house or been alone with its watchful white face for several months. And then he was annoyed to be reconnected with the familiar, stinging pain that now always came with this house.
There had been a summer evening many summers ago when a riotous hilarity had been suddenly rolling all around the kitchens and gardens. The master had uttered the boy’s name and he had announced that he wished to inspect the boy. The slaves had been always proud of this boy and they were rejoicing that their good judgement appeared to have been fortuitously confirmed by the whites. This feeling had promptly died in the boy once he had seen his grandmother’s lowered head and her quick, darting steps around him as she had straightened and wiped at his clothes. She might have been tidying him up for a hanging.
He had dumbly proceeded up the steps at the front of the house, just like a white guest who had been invited there for dinner. This made him feel immediately like an imposter – like some ridiculous, piteous charlatan, who was scraping out his anguished farce on the doorstep. On he went, through the colonnade and into the charmed interior.
He followed Wellington to the door of the master’s study. His heart seemed to bound ahead of him like a hare. The master looked up when the boy showed his face at the door, but he made no signal and continued to peruse a book that was in his hands. He was seated at a desk. It was unnaturally hot and stuffy in the room, even at this hour of the evening, and the boy quickly saw that the master could not feasibly open the room’s glass windows. They all looked out over the kitchen gardens, even though a tall hedge had tried to screen them, and the master would be disturbed by the constant chatter of his slaves.
Finally, the master appeared to have finished what he was reading to his satisfaction. He closed his book and placed it on the desk in front of him. Next, terrifyingly, he had turned and looked directly into the boy’s eyes, raising his wispy grey eyebrows like two sharpened ceremonial swords. To the boy, it was as if he was standing level with the sun and battling to meet its gaze.
“You can read?” the master demanded, as matter-of-factly if he was asking for a fork or a spoon.
The boy shivered all over but he heard himself echo a reply. “Yes, master.”
“I have been told that when my slaves want to read… or, I suppose, listen to the Bible, they go to you and you read it for them.”
He did not sound angry but neither did he sound friendly and encouraging. This was definitely an interrogation.
“Do you know what the Bible means?”
“I… I don’t know master.” The boy’s voice weakened in confusion. A great, hot fluttering disturbance seemed to be prowling around him and veering in ever more closely.
“I think it best if you give me your Bible. You do not need a Bible and I cannot understand why your previous master had ever given you one.”
“That is all. Return here with your Bible and give it over to Wellington.”
This was all but the boy did not pick up his footsteps and leave. Instead, he started to sob. The master had gone back to flicking through his book but then he glanced at the boy impatiently.
“Master, I don’t have a Bible,” the boy crooned in despair.
The master froze, with his eyes fixed flashing, as tiny, black scandalised dots, under the feathery eyebrows.
“You are a sensible boy,” he said at last. “I have not heard of there being any trouble with you before. It will be sad for you to relinquish the Bible, I dare say, but it is my decision nonetheless.”
“Please master, the Bible is only in my head.”
“Boy, I will get Wellington to punish you if you insist on trying me.” The master had sat up but he looked increasingly restless at how openly and honestly the boy was crying. Eventually, he peered around the room and at the windows and then he beckoned the boy slightly nearer to his desk.
The master had clearly heard something of this before. He watched the boy critically and his lips moved in the air several times but he could not make up his mind on his exact words. Then he asked the boy, in a voice that sounded strangely sterile, what he could tell him of Jonah.
The boy stood to attention and he pouted as concentration and control flew swiftly back into his face.
“The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai,” he recited in a stilted sing-song.
The master did not move in his seat.
“‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.’”
The boy was half way through the third verse before the master snapped out of it, swiping the air with his hand to end the recital. Next, he looked around the room angrily and his eyes caught sight of all of the volumes of books that lined its shelves like rolls of fat. He tried to summon back a useable voice to address the boy with but he found that he did not have one sharp enough. Abruptly in a pet, he stamped his foot under the desk with a bump and flung open the book in front of him and gazed sourly at the boy.
“Look at this!” he ordered the boy.
He sat nodding to himself and miming a man complacently reading a book. The boy stared at him and he saw that the master was running his finger slowly down the edge of the page to indicate how fast he was reading. The master flipped the page over testily and his finger continued to run down the next page. He then turned back and nodded solemnly at the boy.
“This is how fast a man can read a book,” he explained. His tone of voice was very cool and informative. “An educated man.”
He suddenly looked alert to what he was saying. Perhaps his mind was being taken over by this competition that he had entered into with a boy who he had called in from out of the garden.
He shook his head as if this could rid it of all of the knowledge that he had lately collected about the boy.
“Very well, if there is no Bible then there is no Bible. But I wish to hear no more of you repeating the Bible to the other slaves. Preaching is for preachers. Work in the garden is for boys in the garden.”
The master never spoke to the boy again. The boy was soon washed out into the fields and into sequences of ever more distant and arduous work. Presumably, the master was still installed in his study to this day, surrounded by books that he could spend all night long flicking through.
On the boy ploughed through the waning light. Yes, a starkness seemed to always settle upon the land at this time of the day. All at once, as simply as a little frog jumping into his palm, pounced a feeling of total, dazzling defeat and dismay. The boy almost stopped ploughing. He felt that he was little more than the soil that was anonymously turning over in the field, a worthless mass that did not need a name and that never required anybody to really look at it. In front of him, the two tails continued to swing.