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Although it was not yet noon, the sky was already a disconcertingly deep and soulful blue. So blue that its fabric seemed to squeak as the sun rubbed against it. Yet he had noted that the land below was not settling into the usual drowsiness of midsummer and it would not do so for as long as the wind kept up. Soft, periodic little gales were skipping over the roadside and rummaging busily in the hedges and trees.

The day was so fresh that it left him with a strange, saddened feeling that he was somehow older than the world. The world rang with a renewed joy and energy, while here he was, still plodding along.

He was on the road to Doctor Trezvant’s. Ahead, he suddenly caught sight of Sam Law and his boy Joe. His own horse was going at a brisk enough clip to pass the pair and very soon it had. Sitting up in his saddle, he cried out in greeting and Sam turned slowly with an unsurprised smile and craned his neck.

“We have had the same thought, on the same day?”

“Or our wives have?” You were always shown the moment when one of Sam’s weak witticisms had rolled together in his brain. He would stick out the tip of his tongue and his eyes would flash as a signal.

Sam rode a slow mule and Joe was seated grandly on a spindlier and even more dilapidated one. The newcomer sat back on his own horse and he assumed a patient expression. “Yes, you’re right. My wife spoke to me about it last night. I told her that I didn’t see what could be done.”

“My wife has been chewing my ear for several days now,” Sam confided, lowering his voice as though she might be riding on the back of his mule. “Between us, do we two know anything of when this fella is intending to come over and claim his property?”

“Nothing. But as I’ve said to my wife, there’s nothing we can do. Doctor Trezvant’s lawyer has made arrangements. A woman goes over there every day to throw some food to the children. As I said to my wife, I can hardy ride up onto a stranger’s property and start putting his slaves to work. Supposing, say, that an injury befell one of them.”

Sam nodded without reply. He then regarded the first man steadily for a second before edging, with a certain exquisitely calculated temerity, and a pained grimace, into broaching that, “I hear your wife is one of those who think that the slaves should be taught to…”

The first man shook his head but he did not otherwise answer.

Joe spoke up for the first time. “We should ride on massa. This is the tree where…”

Sam yelled out, his voice cleaving the air like an axe stroke. “Why have they stopped?” He turned and appealed to the first man, gesticulating beseechingly.

It was true – the three animals had come to a halt all at the same time. The first man spurred his on and the other two picked up their steps in response. He tried to put the matter from his mind, as if with a firm wrench, but he got caught on Joe who was pulling the machinery back the other way. “They are sensitive. They can smell the blood,” the slave was assuring them eagerly.

He always radiated a prim disapproval of his master – of the elder man’s weak-mindedness – of his old womanishness – of his querulousness – but he was careful to never give this snobbery too exact an expression. Today, though, he looked steeply panicked. The first man watched him with a new interest.

“So I heard that a woman died at this tree,” he offered, as if he was putting down a coin whose value he was not totally certain of.

“A nasty piece of business,” Sam reflected, interrupting Joe. “She was whipped good and tied to that tree and none of the other slaves were allowed to come and give her water. Took her some days to die, is what they claim. You could hear her screeching – screeching from the thirst – all across the fields for miles around.”

“Did the doctor care to give any reason…?” the first man asked quietly.

“No, nothing anywise intelligible. But what could you expect from him?”

“We should ride quick past that tree,” Joe urged again, nodding his head. Sam turned, with a curiosity evidently awakening in him, and he complained, a little crossly, on how strange it was for Joe to make such a fuss. He said this as if he thought one thing of negroes but that he had been hitherto led to believe that a local exception could be made for Joe.

Joe stared silently ahead.

“We must be getting near,” the first man observed. “I can see some children up there in the road.”

Sam was going to say something but then he merely cocked a wispy eyebrow conceitedly, his version of plumage, before setting his eyes wisely on the children. But here he found that the waters of his soul were troubled. They did not – as children in a gang tend to – huddle together restlessly and look sharply all around them, in a constant reflex, like tiny, envious warriors who think that they are about to be attacked. Instead, each child stood apart from the others. None of them gave any indication of hearing the clatter of the approaching horsemen.

The first man observed that the children were not half naked or drooping with hunger. Indeed, they were wearing farm clothes that might even last them several more winters. Naturally, they still went barefoot. By now, he had counted them and he saw that there were eight children, all of them boys. They looked a little grey or colourless in the face, as though they had visibly gone stale whilst left unattended out here.

The children edged away as the men rode nearer, flocking slowly under the cover of a magnolia tree.

I’ll have to get down from my horse, the first man sighed to himself. He wasn’t going to hear the children from up here. He swung himself off the horse’s trunk, like a swimmer uncoupling from a boat and into the gaiety of the water. “Hallo there,” he hailed. “Is Martha on the property?”

Martha was the woman who was meant to come every day to feed them.

The boy who was nearest to him mumbled something in reply. The man was immediately convinced that this boy must be drunk. His words had sounded slurred and, indeed, his eyes looked dim and glassy. The man sniffed the air cautiously.

Meanwhile, Joe was helping Sam down from his mule. The elder man wore a bored, petulant expression, as if the mule ride had been a pleasant dream and now he was unimportantly awake.

The boy at the first man’s feet was talking quietly, in such a steady, self-contained way that it sounded like he was a witch who was uttering a spell. The man leaned in to catch the words as they were decanted onto the air. Then, as he listened, an awful admiration started to creep over him, freezing him to his own skeleton.

“I want to be like them. I want to stand naked, looking straight ahead, with nothing to cover me whilst you inspect me. It isn’t right that you think such things. What’s more, I’ve heard that you keep showing yourself to the slaves. That a gang of slaves will be coming in from the fields and that you’ll be somehow accidentally standing naked at a window and it will be as if you aren’t conscious of them all looking at you. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I hear that male slaves regularly walk in on you, to bring food or coffee, and you are supposedly accidentally naked in front of them. This has to stop. I honestly don’t know what you’re saying – I don’t understand how…”

He even sounds faintly like her, the first man thought, impressed.

The little boy was continuing to mumble the words without missing a beat. Very carefully, the man stood upright and he stepped away from the performance. The man was certain that, if he wanted to, he would be able to follow these familiar words, as they chugged away, for a long time yet.

He listened to his own thoughts and it seemed like they were wooden actors who were speaking out loud in a dazzling theatre play that it was impossible for him to understand. This conversation had occurred in the early hours of the morning between the man and his wife. It had been confidential – there had been nobody else in the master bedroom and no open window that any eavesdropper could have stood under. Yet the boy had not recited this conversation gloatingly or to show off his knowledge. Indeed, with a sudden pang of amazement, the first man thought that he might have landed on a solution to this phenomenon. He had once read somewhere about mesmerism – the glassy eyes, the involuntary behaviour. Surely this boy was submitting a superb picture of it.

Several feet away, Sam had spun around and yelped. He looked very agitated. He had made a rough grab for one of the boys but the first man’s words would stay his arm.

“Don’t hit him! Wait for a minute!”

Sam’s arms fell to his sides and he stood frozen in bewilderment. The child who he had accosted continued to babble feverishly away to himself.

“You’ve heard him say something from a conversation between yourself and your wife. Something that you’d thought that none of the slaves could have overheard.”

Sam gazed at him resentfully, giving no sign of agreement and simply waiting.

“It’s mesmerism – he’s been put in some kind of trance.”

Sam grunted. “He can shut his pan or I’ll shut it for him, that’s what…”

“It’s mesmerism,” the first man repeated excitedly. “In that state – in the state he’s been put in – his hearing might be so brilliant that he can listen to conversations from miles away. I’ve read about this. And his memory might have expanded until…”

“Man, this is madness.” Sam seemed to stagger and scramble on the spot, appalled. “They are negroes – they don’t have mesmerism. They don’t have the brains to lay out a tablecloth flat.” As Sam said these words, a pretty little pout, a vain curling of the lip, had appeared under his nose. He grabbed the boy’s shoulders, as if in defiance of a world that was threatening to disallow this, and he rattled the boy’s body all over. “This is a Peeping Tom, pure and plain. They’ve been putting each other up to it. It’s obvious that they’re up to some mischief and…”

“Massa,” Joe strode up to the elder man. “I’ve found Martha – dead. She’s laid out dead in a room on the farm.”

For a second Sam had been caught with his mouth flapped ajar. He had to remember to close it and it seemed to fall down with a comical plonk. He looked swiftly at the first man, thunderstruck.

The first man didn’t know where to begin. “Is there blood?” he queried.

Joe shrugged and wrinkled his nose. “I couldn’t see any. She’s been dead a long time – several days, I’d say.”

“Do you know who’s been feeding the children?” the first man pursued. He was still annoyed that such fruitful speculations about mesmerism had been broken off.

“I spoke with one of them. He didn’t know most of what was going on. He said a black man – sorry massa, I mean a man in black clothes – a white man dressed all in black – had come out of the forest. He’s been treating them good it seems. They’ve been eating meat and fruit and wonderful things they can’t even name.”

“Why haven’t they been put to work?” Sam growled huskily from within his throat. He had started to snort and pace about, as if he could shake off his incomprehension like a dog shaking off water from the river.

The first man held Joe’s gaze. “Is he the solicitor? Or have they got in contact with the owner?”

Joe shrugged again. “He’s not living here. Once he’s fed the children, he goes back into the forest. He must be all tucked up in there.”

The first man was about to inquire what time the man in black would make his next appearance, but then it had occurred to him, all in a rush, that he wanted to be away and gone from this farm. Someone was feeding the children, a white man, and so responsibility was being taken for them. By now, the children in the road had retreated out of sight. The first man leapt back upon his horse. He rode over to where an opening in the hedges looked out across a broad field of rubble.

The forest stood in a flat line along the far side of the field. He pictured a man dressed in black emerging from amongst these trees, with a basket under his arm and with his black clothes all inky black against the greenery, and he could not quell a shudder. A memory fleetingly visited him of a children’s parlour game in which you were chased wildly.

“Let’s return,” he told Sam. He wheeled around on his horse so that he was facing the lane down which they had previously ridden to the farm. Sam was exclaiming in protest behind him but he waited until he could hear the noises of the old man clambering back on to his mule. With this confirmed, the first man was away.

“Hey!” Sam called out to him. “Just hold on there a bit.”

The first man looked around in his saddle. “We’re done here.”

“It’s a long ride back; can we get some water for the horses?” Sam looked shiftily at the farm building.

“It’s not that long a ride. Come on.” Joe was now also up on his mule.

Further down the road and Sam spoke out again, confessing more frankly to what was on his mind. “Look, I’d really like a drink of water. It’s a hot day.”

The first man didn’t reply. He was astonished by his own fear and he tried to isolate it and move it about in his mind and reflect uneasily upon what it meant. This fear was sharply irritating, in the way that a hard stone in the shoe would be. The discomfort was not wholly unfamiliar and it was more like a tunnel that led back, beneath unfathomable mazes, to some very clear and bright scene in his childhood. He rode on but Sam was still bleating in the road behind him. My God, if only the mule could talk and this foolish man was rendered silent, he wished bitterly.

“Slow down, we have to go back to the farm,” Sam was maintaining. Was he truly insensible to the danger that they were currently in? Even Joe was now riding so as to leave him behind.

The first man tried to lick away the thirst from his mouth, as if it was the taste of salt, but it proved too thick. If he could just break away from the other two riders and gallop at full pelt past the tree that would be soon coming up…

“Don’t leave me!” Sam squealed, suddenly panicked. He was now begging his own slave – what a dog’s breakfast this was turning into.

The first man locked his gaze into watching the roadside and the glittering hedges as they floated steadily past. He tried to clear his mind in great batches until it was as blank as a rockface.

The thirst was like a constant tightening stranglehold, a din raging in his head, a drubbing that was rising and rising and getting louder and vaster. It came to him that it was really pain – as acute and as shiny-hard as if a real knife was lodged twisting in his flesh.

He glanced at the tree as it approached and he then looked quickly away. He could not imagine the woman tied to it. Behind him, he became conscious that Sam was down from his mule again. Slowing despite himself, he spun smartly around in his saddle and saw the elder man apparently scampering chicken-brained amongst the grass at the roadside. His eyes were protruding and he was obviously maddened for water.

The first man then perceived that there was a stray puddle left in the shadow of the tree. It contained barely enough slime to cup in his hands. His own throat was virtually singing, ardent for moisture. He knew that he had to try to cram some liquid, however dirty, into his mouth and around his tongue. He slid stupidly off his horse and flopped to his knees at the base of the tree. He was well aware that it must have looked as if he was kneeling to where the woman had died.

He began to shovel the mud into his mouth. He tried to swallow it but there was no relief and it all got caught in his throat. It seemed to stick softly like burning metal against the wall of his parched throat and it would not peel away again. He swallowed and swallowed as a reflex and then the world had stopped and he knelt in the mud, his head wagging as he tried to swallow the thick shaggy material. He could not spit it out but it was drying and solidifying inside his throat so that he couldn’t breathe.

Such pain. He knew that it had been always there, stored somewhere within his fibre, but now it had been unveiled and it was balanced like an immense white sun on his brow. He was finally reduced to a witless, inept little figure whose actions he could no longer keep track of. He was doing something under the tree or around it. He was hunting mechanically in the thickets. It was like he was being whipped on insanely, by a blind man. He was hunting for water and he must find water and he must find water and he must find water.